Jenita Eko travelled at least 1,008 kilometers from her home in Sitio Lemkwa, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato to the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines in Makati City for one reason: to seek protection of her people’s indigenous weaves.
In a meeting with IP officials, Ms. Eko expressed concern over the non-recognition of her tribe, “Akala ng mga tao gawang Davao del Norte ang mga T’boli weaves (People think T’boli weaves come from Davao).”
The T’bolis populate 19 barangays in Lake Sebu and parts of the Alah Valley and the coasts of Maitum, Maasim and Kiamba, all in South Cotabato. Of the 19 barangays, only three produce weaves.
One of the main buyers of the T’boli weaves come from Davao del Norte, which markets home décor using the weaves as embellishment.
“Hindi kaso ang pangongopya ng tahi namin. Gusto lang naming makilala. (Infringement is not our concern. We only want proper recognition.)” says Eko.
Square Peg, Round Hole
Sadly, during the meeting, the IP experts felt like they were fitting a square peg into a round hole.
The weaves cannot be patented for it offers no solution to a technical problem, thereby lacking the element of inventiveness. They didn’t fall under copyright, which exists from the moment of creation until 50 years after death of the author. Since the weaves have been made since time immemorial, they are now part of public domain. The weaves and the term T’nalak have become generic and therefore cannot be considered distinctive enough to be protected as trademarks.
“Hindi po ako legal expert, pero pakiramdam ko meron kaming karapatan sa mga habi namin (I am not a legal expert but I feel that we have a right over our works,” said Eko.
Indeed, while the Philippine intellectual property system protects creations of the here and now for future profitability, the creations of our indigenous peoples require a different policy direction – protection that requires us to look back into their age-old traditions.
Nevertheless, Ms. Eko was encouraged to file for a trademark registration of her group’s logo.
Ms. Eko recounted that the T’boli people have 40 original designs, which came to their ancestors through a dream. Each design depicts a story and can be protected as trademarks.
Enterprising outsiders have outwitted our indigenous peoples by registering their art and medicines without the knowledge or consent of our katutubos. Once registered in their name, these people who are foreign to the tribe commercialize, license and profit from the indigenous intellectual property.
The battle against identity theft is not yet over. I not only have faith that the IP Office will work things out. I also believe that the merits of the case lie in the T’boli peoples’ favor.