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Traditional Knowledge - a Cultural Intellectual Property 

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

People find purpose in their history and heritage. A community’s stories and culture are some of the most important anchoring factors in their identity. But, these stories and culture are more important to the Indigenous people and local communities for whom an existence without heritage is like being an explorer without a map - Lost. 

This is why sustaining and celebrating cultural heritage is pivotal to ensure the growth and rootedness of every group of people. Here’s where Traditional Knowledge (TK) comes into play. 

Defining Traditional Knowledge:

By definition, it is the knowledge, know-how, skills, innovations and practices that are passed between generations, in a traditional context, and that form part of the traditional lifestyle of indigenous and local communities who act as their guardian or custodian (World Intellectual Property Rights Organization). 

Traditional Knowledge is not called so because of it being age-old or antiquity. It is a thriving and living body of knowledge that is developed, sustained and passed on for generations, helping form the cultural and spiritual identity of that community. This state of ‘living’ body of knowledge makes it difficult to put traditional knowledge in boxes and categories. 

Tangible and Intangible Traditional Cultural Expressions: 

While reducing TK to mere definitions and classifications might not capture its complete essence, it is still necessary to be able to understand and learn its components. This is so that TK and its practices can be protected. TKe can thus be expressed through a group’s Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs) and these can further be classified as tangible and intangible. 

Tangible TCEs include objects and visual representations of the community such as Jewellery, Garments, Headpieces, Artefacts, Traditional Instruments, Crafts - like pottery, art and textile. The intangible expressions include cultural practices, representations, songs, narratives, designs, names, symbols and cultural spaces associated therewith.  

Both of these forms of traditional cultural expressions come together to build the community’s heritage and identity. 


Why protect Traditional Knowledge: 

As we understood from the definition, Traditional Knowledge, is a key factor in an indigenous group’s social and physical environment. It builds, protects and sustains the people of the community and hence its protection and preservation is of utmost importance. Traditional Knowledge ensures that the group is represented in this era of global development.

But, with development also come its vices. Many industries are constantly trying to exploit Traditional Knowledge for commercial benefit, thereby misappropriating it or the Traditional Cultural Expressions associated with it, and prejudicing the interest of its rightful custodians. Traditional Knowledge is at the brim of extreme exploitation and this could even lead to erasing a community’s rightful history and heritage.

This is why there is a need to develop ways and means to protect and nurture Traditional Knowledge for sustainable development while taking into consideration the opinions and decisions of the TK holders. 

The preservation, protection and promotion of the Traditional Knowledge-based innovations and practices of local communities are particularly important for developing countries. The abundance of Traditional Knowledge there and their rich biodiversity plays a critical role in their health care, food security, culture, religion, identity, environment, trade and development. Yet, this valuable asset is under threat in many parts of the world.

How can it be protected? 

While it’s not an easy task to protect Traditional Knowledge, recent times have shown a way - Cultural Intellectual Property Rights. According to the Cultural IP Rights Initiative™, Cultural IP Rights are designed to protect artisans, craftsmen and craftswomen, entitling them to a form of compensation for their contribution to the survival of cultural heritage by transmitting traditional designs, traditional techniques and traditional cultural expressions from generation to generation.

With Cultural IP Rights, indigenous communities can create and collaborate without the threat of their identity being misappropriated or stolen. While this is an amazing start and people around the world are realising the importance of TK, it is also important to establish a firm ground for the stability of the community’s growth. Industries need to realise that the artisans - as custodians of TK - are not just a skilled workforce but a unit of collaborators. They need to be regarded on par if not on a higher standard.

Here’s where the 3Cs' Rule can help. 

The 3Cs' Rule: 

Coined by Monica Boța-Moisin in 2017, The 3Cs' Rule stands for: Consent. Credit. Compensation. With these 3Cs in place, taking Traditional Knowledge to the global stage becomes an act of both protection and preservation. 

Industries or designers that are inspired by traditional expressions need to first get the consent of its custodians. The community must be made aware and grant permission for the usage of their motifs, art and expressions. Next, the industry or designer needs to give due credit to the community and celebrate the origins of their inspiration. And finally, the custodians have to be compensated justly for the use of their TK.

Following this 3Cs' Rule will ensure cultural sustainability. 

source: Logo designed by Mónica Parra for The Cultural IP Rights Initiative™ 2020

"The 3Cs - Get Weaving!" Campaign 

The importance of Cultural Sustainability:  

Cultural sustainability implies transmitting or aiding the transmission of traditional knowledge and tradition cultural expressions from generation to generation, within the community or outside of it. This not only helps the community grow but ensures that their identity is not lost or erased.

But, there are many threats to cultural sustainability such as:

  • Mass production without consent or credit

  • Undervaluing the traditional knowledge and expressions

  • Lack of long-term solutions and strategy 

  • Lack of cross-functional integration 

  • Lack of incentive for cultural innovation 

Battling these threats are of paramount importance in our current scenario. Echoing the slogan of The Cultural IP Rights Initiative™, the golden rule of the future is creating synergies between traditional knowledge and innovative technology. Ensuring that there are platforms created and provided for this to happen is the first step to securing cultural sustainability. And when there is cultural sustainability and recognition of Traditional Knowledge, there is prosperity and growth for everyone. 

source: #OneVoiceforCraft Awareness Campaign, CIPRI 2019

Text by Sinduja Sivarajah for The Cultural IP Rights Initiative™  based on content from , edited by Monica Boța-Moisin

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