A recent wire story reveals what may become the next hot global trade issue. Some 600 Indian tribes in Brazil have asked their government to protect them from “bio-piracy,” that is, attempts by corporations to patent or copyright traditional aboriginal knowledge, from potions and herbal remedies to exotic plant extracts.

“We have been asked, and we must do something to stop the appropriation of natural medicines,” said Brazil’s Minister of Industry Sergio Amarai.

This is clearly immoral but clearly legal, as the world’s (read America’s) patent lawyers scramble to tie up everything in sight for as long as possible.

This is theft, if allowed. For starters, ancient remedies should not be patentable and are not supposed to be. But these aboriginals know they cannot take the chance of allowing thieves to steal their heritage and pocket any royalties.

The situation gets ridiculous. Ask yourself: If drug companies can tie up ancient rain forest formulas, what’s to stop the Greek government from trying to patent mathematics, or the Chinese gunpowder, paper or navigation?

The problem is that the rich world does nothing about this while the poor world may end up paying royalties, unnecessarily along with the rest of us, on what it has passed down from generation to generation.

Fortunately, Brazil is going to bat for its aboriginals who cannot afford to get into this game. The problem exists in India and other countries where ancient medicines are gaining the attention of the rest of the world, nor is it restricted to poor countries.

“Some corporations are asking for patent protection for certain genes and even some plants and animals,” said Carlos Correa at the University of Buenos Aires. “But natural medicines in Latin America is a problem of concern to us. We believe that all knowledge should be for the public good.” In theory, patents and copyrights help produce wealth in a society. That’s because they provide financial incentives to develop products that might not otherwise be developed. Ancient inventions are part of mankind’s knowledge base and should not be patentable. But because attempts to steal are under way, thanks to overpatenting allowed in the United States, the Brazilian government must get involved.

Averting thefts is costly and beyond the reach of aboriginals, perhaps even their governments. Intervenors can stop someone from acquiring a patent if they can prove the invention theirs. Neither poor nations nor their residents can afford to protect bona fide inventions from rich predators. The cost of applying and keeping up patent protection around the world is millions of dollars a year.

In the interest of encouraging innovation worldwide, the World Trade Organization must address a number of policy areas: – Strict international rules preventing people from “owning” knowledge in the public interest and the public domain. Like genes or plants.

– Governments should devise an affordable global patenting process.

– A world knowledge bank should be set up for pharmacology, which would allow all discoveries to be shared along with improvements to them. One of the two genome projects has been done this way and was subsidized by governments.

The problem with bringing about changes is that the media, technological and pharmaceutical lobbies in the United States and Europe are powerful, and fiercely resist reforms.

But the fact is that the global patent and copyright system has become unaffordable to all but the extremely wealthy. It excludes protection for the intellectual property rights of people or corporations in the developing world. Put another way, the system is in danger of hijacking the property rights of the less fortunate.

That’s not only an issue of fairness but also overpatenting by the rich the knowledge of the poor, which is an impediment to wealth creation and redistribution around the world. To use the patent lobbyists own argument: The only way to encourage innovation for all to enjoy is to provide financial incentives for the few.

By Diane Francis of the Financial Post (National Post) dfrancis@nationalpost.com