As the primary way of protecting innovation, patents on new ingredients, techniques, and applications play an important role in the cosmetics and personal care industry; however, they are not without controversy, particularly when companies patent naturally-derived ingredients.
This often thorny subject was tackled at the recent Sourcing with Respect conference held in Paris, organised by the Union for Ethical BioTrade.
At the conference, representatives from both government bodies and the private sector discussed the importance of patents as a way to protect innovation as well as foster development in source communities.
However, for Manuel Ruiz Muller, from the Peruvian National Commission against Biopiracy, some patents can be interpreted as acts of biopiracy.
Ruiz Muller cited a number of potential biopiracy cases that had been investigated, or were under investigation, by the country’s anti-biopiracy body. According to Ruiz Muller, a number of these resulted from insufficient research carried out by the company when applying for the patent.
One example discussed was a Cognis patent application in May 2006, which has since been withdrawn, over the cosmetic applications of Plukenetia volubilis or Sacha Inchi. According to Peru’s National Commission against biopiracy, there are references to the use of the plant for cosmetics in national scientific literature, so the novelty and inventiveness of the patent was challenged.
A patent on macca extract to help alleviate sexual dysfunction, applied for in 2001 by Pure World Botanicals that has since been bought by Naturex, was another example Ruiz Muller cited as a case investigated by the Commission on similar grounds.
He went on to advise companies to research all available data relating to novelty and inventiveness claims, as well as evaluating the legal status of materials that need to be accessed and the national procedures concerning the use of traditional knowledge.
Information not always available
Representatives from the private sector were keen to point out that cases such as this are likely to be honest mistakes and not attempts to unfairly take advantage of the situation.
Much of the time, national literature and traditional knowledge are not always readily available, and can be difficult to access even for the most determined of companies.
Some recent advances have been made to make traditional knowledge more available, at the same time as protecting it, including the recent agreement between the patent offices of India, the UK and the US, which grants access to India’s Traditional Knowledge Digital Library.
A joint project between India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library attempts to translate ancient texts into a number of languages to try to protect their contents.