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Biopiracy: The Legal Perspective

Michael A. Gollin


Bioprospecting, or collecting biological samples, can help medical and other scientific research. However, biopiracy, or illegal collection, can:

  • infringe on the sovereign rights of nations
  • decrease the economic health of indigenous communities
  • deplete or destroy species

February 2001


Cinchona seeds were pirated from Bolivia and planted in India. Illustration of Cinchona Calisaya Wedd from Köhler’s _Medizinal-Pflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen mit kurz erläuterndem Texte_, 1887.

A decade ago, there were no laws about what you can or can’t take from nature.

As recently as a decade ago, the legalities of obtaining samples of plants, microbes, and animals were straightforward. In many instances, a researcher could simply arrive at a field site, collect samples, and take them home. There was no applicable law. The researcher might obtain informal permission from a local community or landholder, as much for being on the land as for collecting. At most, the researcher might be required to obtain a permit to collect from national lands, like a fishing or hunting license.

“Take-and-run” describes the old approach to collecting, lately dubbed “biopiracy.”

  • The recorded history of international plant collecting missions goes back at least 3500 years when Egyptian rulers began bringing plants home after military expeditions.1
Scientists used to take specimens from anywhere in the world without repercussions.
  • In the last century, the British Empire instituted regular plant collections. During the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin simply took what interested him, from the Galapagos and elsewhere, and brought it home.

  • The Royal Botanical Gardens took rubber trees from Brazil, and planted them in Southeast Asia. They took cinchona seeds from Bolivia, in violation of national law, and planted them in India.

  • Commodore Perry’s naval mission to Japan collected a wide variety of plants to bring back to the United States.

  • More recently, the adventures of Richard Schultes during the mid-twentieth century have become a legend among ethnobotanists. He was able to befriend local shamans, who allowed him to collect thousands of voucher specimens of medicinal plants, hundreds of which had never previously been identified taxonomically.2

None of these famous collecting trips was challenged on legal grounds. If done today, how would they be challenged?

Michael A. Gollin, J.D., is a partner specializing in intellectual property law at Venable LLP, Washington, DC. He has represented research institutions, organizations, and companies involved in biodiversity prospecting around the world. Mr. Gollin received his law degree from Boston University School of Law.

Biopiracy: The Legal Perspective

BioScience Article

“Genetic Resources and the Convention on Biological Diversity.”
Read this July 2006, BioScience article that describes how the latest meeting of the Convention, in March 2006, tackled policies governing biodiversity research and bioprospecting. Free to read.

Bioprospecting - Pros and Cons

An article written by Professor H.S. Sandhu, Department Head of Veterinary Pharmacology and Toxicology, College of Veterinary Science, Punjab Agricultural University, that outlines the benefits and limitations of bioprospecting, with an emphasis on plants utilized for medicinal purposes.

Affect of TRIPS Agreement on pharmaceuticals

“The adoption of the TRIPS Agreement in 1994 has represented a historical change in intellectual property, with profound implications in the area of pharmaceutical patents” states this 12/98 article.

Biopiracy information

The Centre for Law and Genetics provides numerous articles, links and news about biopiracy worldwide.

Indigenous peoples’ perspective

The Convention on Biological Diversity offers links to web sites that provide information on indigenous people and traditional knowledge.

Plants and patents

Read specific details regarding plant patents, which have been excerpted from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office brochure, General Information Concerning Patents.

Read a book

Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge by activist Vandana Shiva (South End Press, 1997) maintains that the Western world is exploiting nature in Third World communities for its own profit.

ETC Group

For more than 25 years this group has been working to advocate on global issues—including biopiracy and intellectual property—that impact biodiversity, food security, and the rural poor. Their biopiracy site includes a collection of documents related to the issue, ranging from briefings at international congresses to press releases and news articles.

Campaign against biopiracy

A research foundation in India has launched a worldwide campaign against biopiracy because the nation has to continually deal with this problem.

Third World Network

This organization provides an opportunity for concerned citizens to sign petitions on various issues in the biosciences, in particular issues related to patents, biopiracy, and genetically modified organisms.

GRAIN is an international non-governmental organization promoting sustainable development and people’s control over their genetic resources. Several get involved options are offered. The second link take you to their Spanish version site.


Teaching Resources from the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR)

The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR) strengthens public trust in research through education and dialogue. Its diverse membership spans academic, industry, non-profit research institutes, health care, and voluntary health organizations. Through membership and extensive education programs, it fosters a shared commitment to the ethical conduct of research and ensures the vitality of the life sciences community.

Ethics Primer
The Ethics Primer provides engaging, interactive, and classroom-friendly lesson ideas for integrating ethical issues into a science classroom. It also provides basic background on ethics as a discipline, with straightforward descriptions of major ethical theories. Several decision-making frameworks are included to help students apply reasoned analysis to ethical issues.
Bioethics 101
Bioethics 101 provides a systematic, five-lesson introductory course to support educators in incorporating bioethics into the classroom through the use of sequential, day-to-day lesson plans. This curriculum is designed to help science teachers in guiding their students to analyze issues using scientific facts, ethical principles, and reasoned judgment.
Consumer Awareness
This four lesson curriculum engages middle and high school students in an investigation of personal care products. Being an informed consumer requires critical evaluation skills and a basic understanding of science and regulations.

Search for a Meaningful Dialectic

The primary purpose of this activity is to introduce each student to a framework of political and social values which may be used to evaluate the validity of any public policy debate, bill, law, etc. High school and higher.

Paper Clip Game for Learning the Value of Rules

The paper clip game serves as a good device for discussing the need for and importance of rules in society. It acts as a springboard for developing a working definition of law and understanding the importance of law. High School.

Rainforest Medicines

Students investigate the reports of the curative powers of some rainforest palnts. High School.

It’s a Jungle Out There

In this lesson, students act as ethnobotanists and investigate the relationship between plants and people. Middle to High School.

  1. Juma, Calestous. 1989. The Gene Hunters: Biotechnology and the Scramble for Seeds. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.
  2. Davis, Wade. 1996. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. Simon & Schuster, NY.
  3. Convention of Biological Diversity text:
  4. Wilson, Edward O. 1992. The Biodiversity of Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, p. 282.


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