This paper was published in 2011 as Chapter 2 in “Access to Knowledge in India: New Research on Intellectual Property, Innovation and Development”, edited by Ramesh Subramanian and Lea Shaver.
A key proposition of the access to knowledge movement is to promote the dissemination of knowledge and culture without legal restrictions and liberated from the structural iniquities of knowledge markets. There are two types of arguments which lend support to this proposition: philosophical arguments about the requirements of distributive justice and property and aesthetic and epistemological arguments about the nature of creativity in knowledge and culture. Movements to protect and preserve traditional knowledge are often at odds with this central proposition of the A2K movement as they argue for restrictions on transfer and use of traditional knowledge and culture. Critics argue that the ‘public domain’ and ‘access to knowledge’ are categories that pay too little attention to the cultural and ethical settings in which traditional knowledge is created, preserved and regenerated as well as the political economy of knowledge transfers. These arguments may be described as the ‘culture’ and the ‘politics’ argument respectively. If these arguments are right, then A2K has no useful contribution to make in the domain of traditional knowledge policy in India. This paper argues that a critical review of the evolution and practice of traditional knowledge law and policy in India reveals that the the tension between Access to Knowledge and the protection of traditional knowledge is neither necessary nor empirically supported.