TK to the Max: Acknowledging traditions

TK, sadly not my eponymous Totally Katonomist novelty pen line, but Traditional Knowledge. It's a tricky one to analyse, in part because there is no consensus on its definition.  Related terms include Traditional Cultural Expressions, IP for indigenous peoples, genetic resources, expressions of folklore etc... It's a broad church.

In musing about TK, I found myself writing, "economics is not heartless." Oh. But then there was Jeremy's recent suggestion that a session on Nagoya be renamed, "How to Make Up for Previous Efforts to Pretend Nagoya Wasn't Happening."  And a couple of older posts for good measure. So, um, good. We're all heartless or indifferent.

To give economics a heart, by which I mean focus on non-financial aspects of life, and check some privilege, this post focuses on the economics of TK as related to the owners of TK: indigenous peoples.

The UN estimates, "there are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide. Practicing unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.” 

An IP approach to TK promotes the idea of protecting concepts of community identity, cultural patrimony, cultural expressions, folklore etc.  No clear price tags.  TK itself is often difficult to define as it may not be expressed in any fixed way or have clear ownership.  No clear rights.

No price tags or clarity, so how to fit TK into economics? Remember economics does not assume that we are all about money, but about utility.  (See?  Not heartless!) Individuals seek to maximise desires and wants (utility), which includes status, leisure time etc.  Money can be a want by itself, but typically is a means to purchase goods and services that provide utility. Economics often focuses on money because prices indirectly reflect utility.  

Utility is one way to apply economics to poorly defined, difficult-to-monetise property rights. The value of TK to indigenous peoples may lie in the utility provided by the recognition, acknowledgement and codification of the knowledge.  A WIPO fact-finding mission found rightsholders view TK, "as an economic asset and as cultural patrimony.... [and] did not separate “artistic” from “useful” aspects of their intellectual creations and innovations"

Let's not forget that, as Deirdre McCloskey emphasises, economics is, "a social, not an individual, science."  The distribution of utility or benefits is important. In theory, IP protection for TK could address the distribution of it benefits. An obvious case where benefits have been unevenly distributed, and one that IP for TK could address, is that of biopiracy.  Unfortunately this threat has been overhyped as noted by Darren and Graham Dutfield here.  

TK is an odd fit for the IP-for-innovation test.  By definition, TK protects the traditional and will have limited impact on incentives to generate new traditions. (Fine line here between traditions and traditional.) Codification of TK will protect rights holders from copying and could incentivise disclosure and spread of knowledge.  This spread could encourage cumulative innovation (standing on the shoulders of giants.)  The development and marketing of TK may also introduce new goods and services to the market. Not a bad fit. 

A hope of TK is that it will bring sustainable economic development for indigenous communities and support self-determination. Here is where the economic cynic returns. To translate TK into economic development likely requires licensing. Assuming the average indigenous community lacks resources to develop and market products, TK will be licensed to outside organisations. While royalties may flow back to the community, most of the job growth and foreground IP will go elsewhere.  Licensing may create a short-term economic boost, but is not guaranteed to provide long-term development. 

Dutfield, in 2005, recommends the following for TK policy and negotiations, paraphrased below: 
  • Conduct studies to estimate costs and benefits  
  • Place the interests of indigenous peoples at centre of negotiating strategies
  • Emphasise sui generis system will recognise existing, but not respected, property rights.
Ideally, a thorough economic analysis would determine the impact of TK on indigenous communities.  But this might, gasp, be completely irrelevant to the decision making process and negotiations surrounding TK.
TK to the Max: Acknowledging traditions TK to the Max: Acknowledging traditions Reviewed by Nicola Searle on Monday, July 13, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. Careful with the headlines or you might find yourself on the receiving end of a warning letter for tm infringement. Just sayin ;)

  2. TK = utter bollocks. I think that is a sound summary.

  3. The reason why TK is no neglected is because you need self-spirited people to work on them!!!

    First you need to dig them out, document and then promote them -- a Herculean task by any measure, yet not much money...there

    As a rule, they are always short is supply :(


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