Sustainable Development in Environmental Law and its Relevance to IP

Sustainable development has been defined as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). Since the early 1970s, international organizations, notably the United Nations, have been working to integrate development, as through trade and cultivation, with our limited resources. The development that must be balanced against scarcity concerns is not environmental alone, however. The Strategic Plan of the Convention on Biological Diversity, for example, cites “Traditional Knowledge” as one of their initiatives. The United Nations explains, “Sustainable development is about the interface between human society and the environment.”

This article does not advocate a standard of regulations based on sustainable development for indigenous intellectual property. With current intellectual property standards keenly focused on individual ownership, such a system, which depends on the collective good, may well be a practical impossibility. The authors raise the topic of sustainable development to suggest an evolved language or a mode of thinking which could lead to a more realistic, collective notion of intellectual property rights. Specifically, they hope that this language may be helpful in the search for a balance between the advancement of technology and the equitable maintenance of indigenous knowledge.

The links between cases of sustainable development in the realm of environmental law and of indigenous knowledge in the realm of intellectual property law are being emphasized by other agencies, however. For example, the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, resulted in the publication of Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Rio Declaration, and a statement of non-binding Forest Principles. These proposals had dramatic effects on international legislation in both the Environmental and the IP fields.

For information on the progress of the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, click here. Note that this falls within the realm of “Economic and Social Affairs” rather than within the scope of environmental law. The UN considers Sustainable Development an “economic” or “social” issue rather than an “environmental” one, indicating the human concerns associated with this type of development.

An excellent website, although not directly related to the most visible agents for change, is available through the Open University. It contains a comprehensive analysis of Sustainable Development from social, environmental and economical perspectives.
See for more information.

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