Posted to the Ethnos Project by on May 10th, 2013

Published on 10 May 2013 by , Intellectual Property Watch

While diplomats are trying to find consensus on an international instrument to protect traditional knowledge at the World Intellectual Property Organization, some countries are establishing systems to protect their traditional knowledge domestically. South Africa will be launching on 24 May its National Recordal System to catalogue its indigenous knowledge.

The National Recordal System (NRS) is an initiative of the South African Department of Science and Technology (CSIR) with the ultimate goal of creating opportunities “for benefits to flow back to the communities,” according to the CSIR. Benefits could include community recognition, sustainable livelihood, economic value and improved quality of life.

Most of the traditional knowledge in South Africa is oral, passed down from one generation to the next, so that there was no record of it, Yonah Seneti, chief director of the National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office (NIKSO), told Intellectual Property Watch.

“We had to find a way to take note of and record this traditional knowledge,” he said. One of the challenges of this oral tradition is that in most cases older people are the owners of this knowledge and they are passing away so that it is a fragile vehicle which could go away rapidly, he explained.

“We had to come up with a system able to take all sort of sources into account and make sure the knowledge could be attainable,” he said.

The NRS includes the establishment of indigenous knowledge networks, provincial Indigenous Knowledge Systems Documentation Centers (IKSDCs) and an Information Communication Technology (ICT) knowledge platform.

The CSIR considers that traditional knowledge should be part of the modern knowledge economy, Seneti told Intellectual Property Watch. “One of the aims is to try to make those communities that hold this traditional knowledge, part of the mainstream economy.”

An important feature of the system, Seneti said, is that it immediately allows access to information about the geographical location of the traditional knowledge owners. This is important as it increases the efficiency of prior art research. The system will also provide prior art information for intellectual property offices for patent applications examination purposes.

The data included in the NRS will be available to researchers and scientists, and it will be a source of knowledge about genetic resources, which could be useful for conservation purposes, he said.

After its launch, the NSR will be interactive and benefit-sharing agreement forms will be accessible online and downloadable so that permission to use the knowledge is decided upon in a swifter manner than before, according to Seneti.

Challenges to Setting Up the System

Among the challenges faced in setting up the system were technical challenges, such as the fact that unlike the Indian Traditional Knowledge Database Library, the NRS is an interactive database, and information was to be available in English and the 10 other official languages of South Africa. Another technical challenge was to ensure the security of the data so that it not easily found and taken away, but rather accessible only by following a specific process.

Other challenges were finding communities who hold this knowledge, he said. “We had to establish social networks among community leaders. They had to be reassured that if the knowledge was entrusted to us, it was going to be protected.”

“We organised meetings and training sessions on what is intellectual property and the advantage for communities to share their knowledge. It was very difficult negotiating with those communities, in particular traditional healers for which this traditional knowledge is their means of living,” “It was a huge issue,” he confirmed, adding “we do not own the knowledge, we keep it.”

The public domain has been a much-debated issue at the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC), which met from 22-26 April. On this issue, Seneti said the traditional knowledge that is in the NRS is publicly available but it is not in the public domain, as it belongs to the communities (IPW, WIPO, 28 April 2013). In the system, all contextual information about traditional knowledge is translated into English, he said, but the substance is left in original language and would only be provided upon substantiated requests.

According to the CSIR, new technologies will be used to help the NRS to collect yet un-captured traditional knowledge, which “will respect the cultural, traditional rules and etiquette of IK [indigenous knowledge] holders and communities while capturing, managing, storing, protecting and responsibly publishing IK information.”

Some of the objectives of the NRS are: empowering communities and related stakeholders; building and supporting networks; enabling the discovery, cataloguing and utilisation of the national indigenous traditional knowledge heritage; enabling and maintaining a secure, accessible national repository for the management, dissemination and promotion of indigenous traditional knowledge; and achieving national intellectual property objectives for the protection of indigenous traditional knowledge.

Catherine Saez may be reached at

Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported

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