A recent file for copyright of Birkam yoga has attracted new attention to the Indian government’s efforts to safeguard their traditional knowledge. The Indian government has put a group together which is working on protecting material such as ancient texts written in Sanscrit, Urdu and Persian, yoga positions, and traditional healing practices. The Indian government has already set up a database for this knowledge called the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (you need a member to use it), which will eventually function in English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. This project started back in 2001 with collaboration from National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR), the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy, the and Department of Industrial Policy and Promotio. The project is expected to be completed in December 2008.

Such a massive project might initially seem unrealistic and daunting to tackle, specially since patents are usually given to “new” inventions, but given this increasingly growing practice by private companies to patent and restrict use to plants and practices that have been used for millennia, maybe this isn’t such a crazy idea after all.

India’s push to protect its traditional knowledge actually began a while back. In 2003 India proposed a law to fight “protect traditional knowledge and Western piracy […] knowledge“. This proposal sought to encourage disclosure of traditional knowledge and reward those who help out. Once the information was gathered, it could be patented and thus protected from encroachment.

Earlier this month Suketu Mehta wrote an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune where she points out the contradictions and complications with this process. She points out that knowledge in India has been protected through caste lines, not legal or economic ones, and that while piracy is common in India, often Indians get upset when Westerners make money of their traditional knowledge. In the end she comments that this new practice of wanting to claim ownership of everything is hurting those in the developing world. In 2005, under pressure from the WTO, the Indian Parliament passed a law making it illegal to make generic versions of patented medications. This in a national with over a billion people, many of which live in absolute poverty.

We’ll see where all this rush to put everything in private hands ends up…

You can see and read more on the subject from PBS; USA Today; BBC.