The UAE and its neighbours are looking to move from oil-based to industrialised economies. As part of this, the road to intellectual property reform is long and winding. Changes have been seen in the UAE, where the intellectual property regime can be rated positively. However, even here change has been incremental. Recently, the Head of Customs of an Emirate was asked how he knew if goods were counterfeit. He answered this wasn’t a problem because if goods came from an accredited family importer they were genuine and if they didn’t, they weren’t. When asked how they could avoid counterfeit goods from Dubai’s commercial hub coming to them, he gave the impression such a possibility was unthinkable. His answers ignore the fact relationships are changing from family importers to corporate importers and institutions need to catch up.
At the moment, each Emirate has its own system. Only one trademark can be registered, which can make the system fragmented. I’d like to see the system unified with appropriate authorities permitting multiple trademarks to be registered to overcome prioritisation problems. There are situations in the region where laws are treaty-compliant rather than practice-friendly and it would help if intellectual property judgments were published in full and given binding, rather than persuasive precedent value.
Registration systems should be brought completely online and intellectual property formalities of notarisation and apostatising should be abandoned. The current system where copyright owners are forced to pre-register their rights to be able to enforce them should be removed. Finally, I’d like to see a revision of remedies for those whose rights are infringed.
Individuals infringing another’s copyright or trademark are criminally liable. However, in the UAE there is a lack of effective remedies, particularly when it comes to injunctions to prevent further distribution of offending goods and damage to an organisation’s bottom line and reputation. Current violators can expect to pay 10-30,000 AED (or £2,000-5,000) which is not much of a deterrent. However, because there is a limited amount of litigation and enforcement by customs officials, I feel there is no need for a specific intellectual property court in the UAE or across the Gulf.
While the region has a roadmap for IP reform change, it may be slow. Some authorities have looked to Singapore for guidance while others, like Bahrain, look to the US. In the EU, patent regulation took over 35 years to be implemented and in China, it took some 20 years. Meanwhile, companies in the Gulf should get to know customs officials and ensure any rights they may want to protect are registered.