From Plant Press Vol. 17 no. 2, April 2014.
Of all the issues encountered on a daily basis over the past decade while attempting to expand and refine the collection at the National Museum of Natural History, one issue stands out for its complexity: How does a museum establish legal title to the genetic material housed within its own collections or collections the institution wishes to acquire? The issue of legal title and commercial property rights has entered the very cutting edge of collections management, and the growing pains are significant. According to the Smithsonian Institution’s policy on museum acquisitions, the licit quality of an accession should be as complete as possible and should be a matter of public record. Objects with incomplete provenance should not be acquired. The guidance is very clear—either the institution owns the object clearly and without encumbrance or it does not.
After years of watching their natural wealth benefit others, many developing nations have become more proactive in establishing a legal framework by which they can protect their diverse biological patrimony. Many of these countries contain some of the world’s most naturally diverse areas on the planet, and as a result are a hotbed of research and potential exploitation.