India's centuries-old traditional knowledge, preserved and orally passed down through generations of households, is now going digital.
Over the coming months, India will unveil a first-of-its-kind encyclopedia of 30 million pages, containing thousands of herbal remedies and eventually everything from indigenous construction techniques to yoga exercises.
The project represents a 21st-century approach to safeguarding intellectual property of the ancient variety. The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) aims to prevent foreign entrepreneurs from claiming Indian lore as novel, and thus patenting it.
"We do not want anyone selling our own knowledge to us," says Ajay Dua, a top bureaucrat in the Department of Industrial Policy and Planning, which oversees intellectual-property rights. "Also, we would like anyone using our traditional knowledge to acknowledge that it is from India."
These concerns are not unfounded. In the past decade, India has fought several costly legal battles to get patents revoked. The impetus for TKDL came in 1997, after India successfully managed to get a US patent on the wound-healing properties of turmeric revoked.
"This patent claimed the wound-healing properties as a novel finding, whereas practically every Indian housewife knows and uses it to heal wounds," says R. A. Mashelkar, chief of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
The innovative idea to translate and digitize all the available information on traditional medicine was a collaborative effort of bureaucrats, scientists, and intellectual-property lawyers.
"It was a way to prevent more patents from being granted. Also, it was a way of throwing the information open to the public because this traditional wealth is for the benefit of mankind," says Rajeshwari Hariharan, a partner at K&S Partners, the law firm that represented India in several high-profile patent cases, including its fight over basmati rice, turmeric, and the antibacterial properties of the neem [margosa] leaf.
Of about 5,000 patents on plant-based formulations granted by the US in 2000, 80 percent were on plants of Indian origin, says Vinod Gupta, with the National Institute for Science Communication and Information Resources.
Mr. Gupta heads a team of 150 doctors, scientists, and information-technolgoy experts who have worked on the TKDL project since 2002. Poring over ancient medical texts and punching code into computers in Delhi, they have already documented more than 110,000 formulations culled from some 100 texts belonging to the three principal systems of traditional medicine - ayurveda, unani, and siddha.
Patent officers call this information "prior art," or previously existing knowledge about the applications of a product. Normally, a patent application is rejected if there is prior art on the product. But in the patent offices of the US, Europe, and Japan, prior art is recognized only if it has been published in a journal or database.
Traditional knowledge and folklore passed down orally - or contained in ancient, inaccessible texts - are not prior art. "We therefore revisited the past and modernized it," says Gupta.
The TKDL uses complex computer software to translate formulations written in ancient and medieval Indian languages to English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish.
The $2 million project could wind up saving India money in the long run. "It is definitely far cheaper than any litigation costs India would have to pay to fight patent battles," says Gupta.
Indian officials are recognizing an ever- widening array of traditional knowledge that may be stolen by biopirates. "You name an area, and there is an Indian product in danger of being lost to a patent," says Gupta, pointing to Indian handicraft designs, Kashmir silk, and pashmina, a premium wool derived from the Himalayan goat.
Yet many were caught off guard here when in 2004 the US granted an Indian-American yoga practitioner a patent on a sequence of 26 asanas, or physical exercises. Following the initial disbelief that anyone could claim authorship over a 5,000-year-old tradition, officials say they are finally setting up a task force with yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar to prepare a case.
Such disputes have expanded the scope of the TKDL project. Once traditional medicine entries are completed, officials say they will focus on documenting all traditional knowledge. Already, the CSIR is creating databases on traditional Indian foods, indigenous architecture and construction techniques, and oral tribal knowledge, in what Dr. Mashelkar calls "defensive protection."
"The conversion of our [traditional] knowledge into digital format is need-based and has become essential," he adds.