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Intellectual property tools for products based on biocultural heritage

Graham Dutfield

Issue paper, 30 pages

Products developed by indigenous peoples and traditional societies, such as food crops and medicines, can protect biodiversity and provide an important source of income. This review explores the intellectual property (IP) tools of geographical indications, trademarks and rules of unfair competition for promoting these products, and protecting them from misappropriation, misuses and imitation, and assesses their potential to contribute to sustainable development.

Intellectual property law is used mostly by large and powerful corporations, and does not easily accommodate the collective interests of groups and communities. Small producers and indigenous communities face significant difficulties in acquiring IP rights in important markets. But particular forms of IP - such as geographical indications and trademarks, which can recognise and support group rights - may be better suited to use by groups or associations of small producers and may help protect their biocultural heritage.

This legal review draws primarily on experience in Europe, where GIs and trademarks have been most widely used to date, but also includes experience from developing countries, such as India's recent experience with geographical indications.

This review suggests that achieving appropriate design of intellectual property tools will be a significant challenge for developing countries and producers, requiring strong organisational and institutional structures, equitable participation among producers, strong market partners who can help to promote biocultural products over the long term, and effective legal protection. Some developing countries have already been able to benefit from geographical indications and trademarks. With careful design and use, these IP tools could promote products based on biocultural heritage and economically benefit indigenous communities and small producers.

Follow the links below for more about our work on Biocultural heritage and Shaping Sustainable Markets.

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Dutfield, G (2011). Intellectual property tools for protecting and promoting products based on biocultural heritage. IIED, London.

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Shaping Sustainable Markets is a research initiative that explores how the formal and informal rules used to govern markets – called market governance mechanisms (MGMs) – are designed, and how they impact on people, the planet and the economy.

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