Traditional Knowledge, Traditional Cultural Expressions and Genetic Resources

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Traditional Knowledge (TK), Traditional Cultural Expression (TCE’s) and Genetic Resources (GR’s) are important elements of the cultural heritage and the social and historical identity of local and indigenous communities as well as many nations and regions with a shared cultural history.

Tradition-based innovations and creations are valuable cultural and economic assets, developed, maintained and passed on from generation to generation by indigenous and local communities around the world.

At present, there is no universally recognised definition of ‘Traditional Knowledge’ or Traditional Cultural Expression.

The following are working definitions being used in WIPO:

Traditional Knowledge: the content or substance of knowledge resulting from intellectual activity in a traditional context and includes the know-how, skills, innovation, practices and learning that forms part of traditional knowledge systems and knowledge embodying traditional lifestyles or indigenous and local communities or contained in codified knowledge systems passed between generations.’

Traditional Cultural Expressions: Traditional cultural forms, whether tangible and /or intangible, in which traditional culture and knowledge are expressed, appear or are manifested and comprise the following forms of expressions or combinations thereof:

  • verbal expressions, such as stories, epics, legends, poetry, riddles and other narratives, words, signs, names and symbols
  • musical expressions such as songs and instrumental music
  • expression by action such as dances, plays, ceremonies, rituals and other performances
  • tangible expressions such as productions of art in particular drawings, designs paintings (including body-painting) carvings, sculptures, pottery, terracotta, mosaic, woodwork, metal ware, jewelry, baskets, needlework, textiles, glassware, carpets, costumes, handicrafts, musical instruments and architectural forms, which are;
      • the products of creative intellectual activity including individuals and communal creativity
      • characteristic of a community’s cultural and social identity and cultural heritage and
      • maintained, used or developed by such community or by individuals having the right or responsibility to do so in accordance with the customary law and practices of that community.

Genetic Resources: species, sub-species or genetic varieties of plants, animals and micro-organisms that have actual or potential value.

Creations and innovations that are tradition-based have economic and cultural significance when used in entertainment, cultural tourism, architecture, fashion and cuisine. In addition, TK, TCE’s and Genetic Resources (GR’s) have great commercial potential and their exploitation can help establish community enterprises, improve livelihoods and alleviate poverty as well as be valuable inputs to cultural and other industries, such as agricultural, biotechnological, pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.

Unfortunately, there are instances where third parties misappropriate or use TK, TCE’s and GR’s without adequately sharing the benefits or even acknowledging the communities and countries of origin.

Efforts are underway at the regional and international level to identify and create measures that can be used to exert some form of control over the use by third parties of intangible property which is associated with TK, TC and GR subject-matter.

Work at the Regional Level

In 2006, CARICOM Ministers responsible for IP adopted a Resolution calling for the establishment of a regional framework on TK, TCE’s and GR’s.

A Caribbean Working Group was created at a Regional Expert meeting held in March 2008 in Kingston, Jamaica with a mandate to undertake, with the assistance of WIPO, research, fact-finding and consultation (with local and indigenous communities, government officials, non-government organisations, users and other relevant stake-holders) in order to develop the harmonized framework for review by Caribbean Member States.

The Working Group may be contacted at

Work at the International Level

The WIPO Inter-governmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (‘IGC’) is an international forum mandated by WIPO’s Member States which brings together representatives of governments and indigenous and local communities to discuss and address policy development and norm-building in relations to IP and TK, TCE’s and GR’s

The IGC is `examining ‘draft principles and objectives’ that could shape sui generis (special, of their own kind) instruments on TK and TCE’s.

For more information please see
Or you may contact them at