This paper contends that the proper role of law in managing uses of traditional knowledge is highly contextual. In some settings, distributive justice, cultural diversity and group identity formation would be promoted by according Indigenous groups more power to control or to benefit from uses of knowledge developed and sustained by their members, while in other settings, respect for individual autonomy and the promotion of semiotic democracy counsel against providing Indigenous groups that power.

The paper then outlines two alternative legal frameworks, either of which could accommodate this complex combination of competing values. The first would incorporate, in a multilateral treaty, a set of provisions that, by increasing the risk that the unauthorized use of traditional knowledge would result in forfeiture of intellectual property rights, would put pressure on private firms to accede to reasonable requests made by the governments of developing countries and by representatives of Indigenous groups. The second would augment and harness public discourse concerning the morality of particular uses of traditional knowledge by creating a disclosure obligation, disconnected from intellectual property law, analogous to the labelling requirements commonly imposed on the producers of food, clothing and drugs.

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CIGI Papers present in-depth analysis and discussion on governance-related subjects. They include policy papers that present CIGI experts' positions or contributions to policy debates, and background papers that contain research findings, insights and data that contribute to the development of policy positions.
  • William Fisher is the Wilmer Hale Professor of Intellectual Property Law at Harvard University. He has taught at Harvard Law School since 1984.