Protection of Indigenous Cultural Heritage in India: Laws and Policies

Culture and its legacy play a vital role in various societies around the world. Every different society has developed a distinct culture and has developed its distinguished knowledge and biological resources. This provides a discrete identity to the societies and forms its heritage.

The protection of such cultural heritage and traditional knowledge from misuse and misappropriation is very crucial to preserve the existence of such societies.

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has developed a very effective structure for ensuring the protection of indigenous and cultural heritage. WIPO provides many solutions through their IP systems for the protection of cultural expressions and knowledge. 

Such IP solutions include various copyright laws, trademark laws, and industrial designs.

They have introduced three terms namely:

  1. Traditional cultural expressions (TCE)
  2. Traditional Knowledge (TK)
  3. Genetic resources (GR)

Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCE) [1]

A traditional cultural expression (TCE) is a term coined by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). TCE means different forms of artistic and literary expressions. Such artistic and literary expressions include dance forms, art, music, signs, performances, etc. 

There were many discussions on various international platforms for the feasibility of a uniform approach while dealing with TCE issues. But it seems that a uniform approach may not be appropriate to resolve the concerns regarding the TK and TCE, due to the diversity of the subjects.

 The Commission on Intellectual Property Rights (CIPR) has stated that a single solution cannot cater to a wide range of concerns.

Traditional Knowledge (TK)[2]

There is no internationally recognized definition of traditional knowledge. In a general sense, TK is knowledge regarding intellectual skills. Suck knowledge includes know-how, skills, practices related to various fields such as agriculture, medicinal, technological, etc.

Traditional knowledge can be protected through various IP systems like patents, Geographical Indications (GI), trade secret, and confidential information. 

Genetic Resources (GR)[3]

Genetic resources are mostly used to protect various plant varieties developed. In a general sense, they include material of plant, animal, microbial, or another origin according to WIPO. 

Regulations and policies in India on TCE

India does not have a special statute or set of regulations for the governance of TCE matters. But the interpretation of certain provisions under the constitution of India and the IP laws can protect the TCE’s.

Protection under the Indian Constitution

Article 21 of our constitution guarantees the protection of life and personal liberty. A wide interpretation of Article 21 of the constitution can provide certain protections to the TCE’s. Article 51 A (f) of the Indian Constitution promotes to value and preserve the rich heritage of Indian culture as a fundamental duty of the citizens of India. Article 29 protects the rights of minorities of India having a distinct language, script, or culture. But this provision is limited to the protection of the culture of only minorities. 

Protection through Intellectual property (IP) Laws in India

The Indian IP laws do not directly mention the protection of TCE’s anywhere. But the copyright Act 1957, which was later amended in 2012, defines artistic work, dramatic work, engravings, Indian work, literary work, musical work, performance, and performers. These definitions can be interpreted to fall within the ambit of TCE. 

Section 31A of the Copyright Act, 1957[4], provides for issuing copyright for unpublished or published work. Section 57 of the Copyright Act, 1957, defines the special rights of the Authors. These special rights are also known as the moral rights of the author. Such rights include the author’s rights to claim authorship of the work and to claim compensation for any damage. These rights can be used to protect TCE owners from any mutilation, distortion, modifications of his works. 

The Copyright Act, 1957 only protects the contemporary TCE’s. According to the Act, the pre-existing TCE’s are in the public domain. This creates a conflict of interest between genuine owners and current users. The major concern regarding protecting TCE’s under Copyright laws is the limited span of protection granted under copyright laws. TCE’s have been present for centuries. And to ensure proper protection to TCE’s, they cannot be allowed to slip into the public domain.

The Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPs)[5] agreement came into effect on 1st January 1995. As a member of WTO, India had to comply with the provisions under the TRIPs agreement. But as a developing nation, India was given a 10 year transition period to comply with the TRIPs agreement. India modified many domestic IP laws to comply with WTO standards. As a part of compliance with Article 22 of the TRIPs agreement, India enacted the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act in 1999[6] (GI Act).

Geographical Indications (GI) protect community rights of certain products or goods that have a reputation associated with a particular area, where they are produced or have an origin. Madhubani painting and Chanderi saree are examples of cultural expressions of different communities of India. The GI act of India not only covers various cultural expressions like handlooms and handicrafts but also extends to food items like Rasgoolas of Odisha. Therefore, GIs provide a very effective way of protecting various cultural expressions of diverse communities in India. It also helps in developing a brand image and furnishing the requisite recognition to the ancient and diverse culture of India.

Trademark is another form of IP used to protect the TCE’s. Trademarks provide a distinct identity to the products or goods. Such distinct identification assists the customer to know the origin of the product.

The Trade Marks Act, 1999[7] provides a certain protection against infringement of registered and unregistered trademarks.

Many nations, like the United States and Australia, have specific laws for the protection of TCE’s. India legislature also needs to act on the aspect of rendering specific and much-required protection to our diverse cultural expressions. 

Institutional protection

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)[8] is a non- governmental organization set up in 1984. INTACH focuses on promoting awareness on d protection of the tangible and intangible heritage of India. It also aims at developing various policies and regulations on the protection of Indian cultural heritage. INTACH also has an Intangible Cultural Heritage department aiming to safeguard the cultural heritage of India.

The Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology at American Institute for Indian Studies in India (AIISI) works to limit the rights of recording depositors and scrutinizes the recordings by contacting the real performers. These efforts lead to the protection of the rights of true performers of such field recordings. 

The National Folklore Support Centre (NFSC), which endeavours for the documentation of the TCE’s with the help of different communities.

The Government of India has launched a National Mission on Cultural Mapping of India (NMCM). NMCM aims at developing a cultural map of India and to provide a platform and structure to the artist all around India to preserve the rich culture of India. It is an effort to develop a direct channel of interaction between the Indian government and the Art fraternity. 

The Government has also established the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA). The IGNCA has developed a report of cultural mapping of India under the UNESCO Program on Cultural Industries and Copyright Policies and Partnership[9]. This report identifies various cultural industries that need protection. 

The IGNCA also works on digital documentation of various TCE’s like National Databank on India Art and Culture and Kalasampada (a digital resource database on traditional cultural heritage). Such databases document TCE’s like books, audio, video, art, etc. 

The Ministry of Tourism and Culture launched the National Mission for Manuscripts (NMM)[10] in 2003. The objective of this mission is to document, preserve, and digitalize the manuscripts in India. 

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)[11]

TheGeneral Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007. This declaration was passed with a majority of 144 states in favour, 4 votes against, and 11 abstentions. India was amongst the countries that voted for the declaration.

The UN General Assembly passed the UNDRIP realizing an urgent need to recognize the rights of indigenous people. The Assembly also apprehended that the existence of such people greatly depends on their inherent collective rights. 

Article 11 of the UNDRIP provides a right topractice and rejuvenate their cultural traditions and customs to the indigenous people. This right also includes a right to maintain, protect, and develop their cultural indications like historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

The Party states have to develop mechanisms to redress and protect the rights of indigenous people regarding their cultural, intellectual, religious, and spiritual property.

Under Article 24 of the UNDRIP, the indigenous people have a right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices and to conserve their medicinal plants and animals.

In addition to this, Article 31 of the UNDRIP also provides a right to the indigenous people to protect, maintain, and preserve the traditional knowledge and genetic resources. 


[1] https://www.wipo.int/tk/en/folklore/

[2] https://www.wipo.int/tk/en

[3] https://www.wipo.int/geo_indications/en/

[4] Indian Copyright Act, 1957 – https://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/upload_document/CprAct.pdf

[5] AGREEMENT ON TRADE-RELATED ASPECTS OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS – https://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/27-trips.pdf

[6] THE GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATIONS OF GOODS (REGISTRATION AND PROTECTION) ACT, 1999 – http://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A1999-48.pdf

[7]  The Trade Marks Act, 1999 – www.ipindia.nic.in/writereaddata/Portal/IPOAct/1_43_1_trade-marks-act.pdf

[8] Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Mission – http://www.intach.org/about-mission.php

[9] Cultural Mapping of India – http://ignca.gov.in/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/UNESCO_Report.pdf

[10] National Mission for Manuscripts – https://namami.gov.in/national-mission-manuscripts

[11] https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html


Shivam Kene from ILS Law College, Pune

Shivam’s short term goal is to work to work at a reputed Company/Firm and his long term goal is to become a more knowledgeable and responsible person.

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