Mpls law firm blocked turmeric patent, curried favor in India

For thousands of years, Indians have applied turmeric to wounds as an antibiotic. The Indian government was appalled to learn in 1995 that the University of Mississippi Medical Center patented this ancient use of the herb. The patent granted exclusive rights to manufacture, distribute, and sell turmeric to treat wounds.
Photo courtesy of UCLA library

Few things say "India" as loudly as the rich yellow color of turmeric. It's a staple of Indian cuisine. Turmeric gives Indian dishes a distinct bitter taste and golden hue.

At the Bombay Bistro, an Indian restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, head cook Malti Mehta stirs big pans of chicken and vegetables bubbling with turmeric. She says she can't cook without it. But if she nicks herself while chopping vegetables in the kitchen, she'll use turmeric for that, too.

Malti Mehta
Malti Mehta, head cook at Bombay Bistro in downtown Minneapolis, says turmeric is a staple of Indian cooking, but it's also a well known antibiotic. She applies it to cuts on her fingers.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"If I have a cut here, and it's bleeding, I put lots of turmeric on it and bandage it," says Mehta.

Turmeric comes from grinding up the rhizomes, or underground stems, of the turmeric plant -- which is in the ginger family. Mehta's husband, Ajay, says Indians have used it as a medicine for centuries.

"Turmeric is known as antibiotic from ancient times in India. And even today if you have a small scratch or small cut somewhere, in India, the first thought would be turmeric," says Ajay.

Twelve years ago, the University of Mississippi Medical Center patented this ancient medicinal use of the herb. The patent granted exclusive rights to manufacture, distribute and sell turmeric to treat wounds.

Turmeric comes from the ground up stems of the neem plant. Indians have used it as a medicine for centuries.

Attorney Mark Skoog says patenting turmeric for commercial use seemed kind of absurd.

"I can kind of picture the infomercial on Saturday morning about the great new wound healing composition, turmeric!"

Skoog is a partner with the Minneapolis-based law firm Merchant & Gould, which specializes in patent and trademark law. The Indian government wanted to overturn the turmeric patent, and tapped the Minneapolis firm for help.

Merchant & Gould lawyers began compiling volumes of documents showing that turmeric's wound-healing properties were "common knowledge" in India. Those documents even included ancient Sanskrit texts, which the firm had translated and then presented to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

While the patent reexamination was underway, the Indian government invited Merchant & Gould lawyers to lecture in India about patent issues. John Gould is retired now, but was a partner at the time. He recalls how, during his lectures in India, he constantly fielded questions about the then-unresolved turmeric case.

On the lecture circuit
John Gould, retired partner with Merchant & Gould, visited India in 1997 to lecture about patent law while the turmeric case was pending. Here he is on excursion to the Taj Mahal.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"It created a tremendous stir in the Indian scientific community that this had happened. They kept asking us what's happening in the United States patent and trademark office," Gould recalls.

By the spring of 1997, a ruling on the turmeric patent arrived. Gould says his firm was pleased to make its report to the Indian government -- the turmeric patent was revoked.

"We were able to give them the good news -- all the claims cancelled and declared invalid," says Gould. "I heard indirectly that this report went all the way up to the prime minister of India. It was that important."

But one Indian lawyer says it really wasn't that important. Patent attorney S. Majumdar says the turmeric case got a lot of play in the Indian press, fueling sentiment that Americans were somehow stealing Indian traditions to make money.

As it turns out, the two scientists behind the University of Mississippi patent were of Indian descent. And Majumdar thinks the patent would not have had much bearing on India's turmeric industry anyway, so he questions the government's pursuit of the case.

Brown Basmati rice
Basmati rice is an aromatic rice grown at the base of the Himalayan mountains between India and Pakistan. An American company managed to patent basmati rice as its own. Merchant & Gould helped to significantly restrict the patent and advised the Indian government on its efforts to win trademark protection for the term "basmati." The trademark issues are still pending.
MPR Photo

"It was absolutely a political action, there were no business reasons for that, there were no national reasons for that," says Majumdar.

But Majumdar frequently works with Merchant & Gould and respects the firm.

Whether or not the hype was excessive, the turmeric case did promptly bring Merchant & Gould another another big case -- this time involving another traditional Indian product, basmati rice.

An American company managed to patent basmati rice as its own. Again, there was an outcry from the Indian government. Again, Merchant & Gould was brought in. The firm helped to significantly restrict the patent.

In the aftermath of the turmeric and basmati cases, Merchant & Gould partner Mark Skoog says the firm has enjoyed steadily increasing business from Indian companies that know the firm's name.

"They invariably raise John Gould, Merchant & Gould, turmeric, and basmati rice," says Skoog.

This week Mark Skoog is representing Merchant & Gould on the governor's trade mission to India. He writes in an e-mail that he's pursuing work with Indian pharmaceutical companies.

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