New IPR policy on the anvil

  • The new IPR policy is necessary, but not sufficient

The healing power of haldi was known to Indians for many generations. But in the mid-1990s, when the US Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to two US-based researchers of Indian origin for “discovering the healing property of turmeric”, Indians were shocked. The patent was cancelled only after India hired a legal firm in the US and fought the case.

Thanks to the timely intervention by the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), of Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, India could reaffirm its rights over many of its herbal wealth in similar claims made by multinational companies. TKDL presented “prior art” from ancient Ayurvedic medicinal references about turmeric, apple and basil (tulsi) for treatment of diseases like inflammation, gastritis and psoriasis.

The US patent authorities grant a patent only after the invention gets published in the public domain. Multinational companies and researchers exploit the situation when they are aware that this kind of documentation is lacking for most traditional knowledge in India.

While India fought successfully against the US multinationals, which tried to usurp the patent rights of traditionally known secrets of Indian herbs, US has been accusing India of not sufficiently enforcing patent laws. India, along with China and Russia figures in the 'Priority Watch List' maintained by the US Trade Representative (USTR) for not showing enough improvement in IPR protection. Refuting this, India says its patent laws are in compliance with Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement under the World Trade Organisation. US wants strict implementation of IPR laws to curb use of unlicenced software, and piracy of music and movies amounting to $7 billion a year, and has been pressuring India for improvement of IPR protection. India, too, has been a victim of copyright violations in the entertainment industry. Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, home to Indian film and music industry, reported maximum copyright violations. The government wants to curb this by setting up commercial courts and taking stringent action against the violators.

Creative India Innovative India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched two projects—Make in India and Startup India—to transform India into a manufacturing hub. This target will remain a distant dream unless it is backed by an IPR regime that supports entrepreneurship.

The government unveiled the National Intellectual Property Rights Policy in May 2016 with seven objectives: create awareness about IPR, generate IP assets, to have strong IPR laws, strengthen administration, encourage commercialisation of IPR, combating IPR infringements sternly and build up sufficient human resource.

Under the new policy, the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion has been authorised as the nodal agency for IPR issues.

Widespread criticism

The new policy has invited criticism, too. Many issues peculiar to the Indian situation have not been addressed in the new policy, say critics. Though this is an important step towards protecting IP rights, it lacks legislative support. The government has no intention to amend the Indian Patent Act, 1970, and it will continue to administer all IP-related matters.

The policy to promote IPR assets will generate proliferation of low-value patents, but with low innovation, just like it happened in China. India's R&D investment was a meagre 0.8 per cent of GDP compared to China' s 1.9 per cent and 2.7 per cent of the US in 2014. So, the build up of low-value patents will worsen the already crippled trademark and patents services. There is already a huge backlog of IPR cases. Till March 2014, more than 2.37 lakh patent applications and 5.44 lakh trademark registrations have been awaiting clearance.

Indian generic drug makers who provide affordable drugs worldwide are concerned that the new policy will not favour innovation in pharmaceuticals. Software patents are still invalid in India and cannot fight software piracy effectively.

India's traditional intellectual assets are so vast that they need strong documentation to protect them from powerful multinationals. It is, however, a near impossible task to copyright every detail of traditional knowledge in fields as diverse as Ayurveda, Unani, Tibetan medicine and water conservation.

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