Cumberland Professor’s Fulbright Research Could Help Clarify
Intellectual Property Law
by Sean A. Flynt
At first glance,
legal education and study of folk culture seem to be greatly
diverging professional paths—the stuff of conflicts
between idealistic undergraduates and practical parents. Yet
students in Cumberland School of Law Professor Paul Kuruk’s
courses learn just how profoundly international law can affect
folk culture, especially in developing nations.
Kuruk specializes in the intersection of intellectual property
law and the art, craft, knowledge and other resources of indigenous
societies. As a recipient of a prestigious Fulbright Senior
Scholar Award for fall 2002, Kuruk will pursue this research
in residence at the Max-Planck Institute for Foreign and International
Patent, Copyright and Competition Law in Munich, Germany.
|Professor Paul Kuruk
will use Fulbright award to study in Germany.
The Fulbright experience will be only the latest international
research opportunity for Kuruk, whose expertise is widely recognized.
In addition to consulting with the Alabama state government and
serving as the secretary of the International Law Section of the
Alabama State Bar Association, he is a consultant to a number of
United Nations agencies, including the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] and World Intellectual
Property Organization [WIPO]. He also serves on a team established
by UNESCO to draft an international treaty for the protection of
cultural heritage. In spring 2003, Kuruk will serve as visiting
professor of law at Oxford University.
As a native Ghanaian and legal scholar, Kuruk said it made perfect
sense to him that he should specialize in the use of intellectual
property law to protect indigenous culture against undue exploitation.
Unfortunately, he has found that the law as developed by western
societies is ill-suited for protecting the resources of non-Western
societies, such as his native West Africa.
“For example,” he said, “intellectual property
law requires protected works to have been written or recorded, and
protection is generally granted for a limited duration, such as
20 years in the case of patents. Traditional knowledge cannot meet
these criteria, because it is often passed orally through generations
of people over the centuries and therefore is of ‘unlimited
Kuruk said the culture gap in intellectual property law is particularly
evident in the development of medicine. He cited Madagascar’s
native periwinkle plant, used in cancer treatment, as one of the
most widely recognized examples of the law’s failings. “The
plant was patented and marketed, netting the [pharmaceutical] company
some $100 million, 88 percent of which was profit to the company,”
Such apparent economic injustice has raised international concern
that traditional knowledge and native resources are being exploited
without adequate compensation to the owners of that intellectual
property. Kuruk said the fear is that benefits to indigenous communities
or developing nations “pale in comparison to the huge profits
made by the Western exploiters.”
Kuruk noted that although the technical difficulty of resolving
such conflicts has attracted scholarly attention, critical issues
such as how traditional communities recognize and protect their
own resources are under-explored. He addresses these issues in his
own research, though, and hopes the work will lead to new, more
equitable criteria for the legal protection of traditional culture.
Since Kuruk’s research will inform his specific suggestions
to UNESCO, there can be little doubt about the international impact
of his scholarship. And as he continues to teach at Cumberland,
there can be little doubt that his students will learn that folk
culture and the law are inextricably linked.