Omani Cities and the Nightmare of Inconsistent Spelling

As a follow-up to my previous post, I think it is important to address the problem of inconsistent spelling in Oman in general because Sohar is not the first or the last city name/brand to be harmed by arbitrary spelling changes. It only takes a day’s drive anywhere in Oman to notice the randomness of how names of Omani places are spelt. Spelling nightmares in Oman range from major cities such as Sohar, Seeb (as Sib, al-Seeb), and Matrah (Mutrah, Muttrah), to neighbourhoods in the heart of the capital such as Athaiba (Azaiba, Odaiba, Al-Athaiba) and Mabaila (Mabela).

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Domain Name Restrictions in Oman and the GCC

I wrote a column for Muscat Daily a while ago on the new arbitrary restrictions imposed on the registration of Omani (.om) domain names, but after I wrote this column I discovered that these restrictions are not completely arbitrary as the TRA has specified in the Omani Domain Name Regulations of 2012 a list of categories of prohibited domain names that may not be registered in Oman on technical, legal, moral, or social grounds. Even though this list has been around since 2012, I do not believe that it was actually enforced in the same way it is done now because I was able to register my domain name (riyadh.om) in 2015 without any issues. According to the Omani Domain Name Regulations, my domain name falls under a prohibited category because it also happens to be the name of a geographical location, and the registration of the names of capital cities is now not possible through any of the accredited registrars (such as Omantel). For example, amman.om, cairo.om, and doha.om are all unavailable for registration, not because someone has already registered them, but because they are restricted names. This can be verified using the .om WHOIS service.
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Patents Granted in Oman in 2016

There are three ways to acquire patent protection in Oman. You can either go to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI) and file a patent application there, or you can go to Saudi and apply for a GCC level patent, or you can use the international system for patent registration provided by the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). A few times every year, MOCI publishes in the Official Gazette the patent applications that it receives domestically or through the PCT. I took a look at these patent announcements that MOCI published in 2016 to see how many patents are filed and granted in Oman and to see how their inventors are.

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Registration of Copyright Works in Oman in 2016

Unlike patents and trade marks, copyright works do not need to be registered to acquire protection in Oman. However, the government still provides a mechanism for registration to those who wish to do so. This does not grant those who register with any special legal rights, but, in theory at least, it can provide additional evidence in case the ownership or the existence of a work is contested. Once or twice a year, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI) publishes in the Official Gazette the details of the works that have been deposited for copyright registration. In 2016, MOCI published only one list in Official Gazette issue no 1158. I took a look at this list to see how many works were registered this year, by who, and for what kind of works.

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Copyright History in Oman

Unlike many other countries in the Arab world, Oman was never colonized by neither of England or France and did not inherent copyright law from a colonizing regime. There is no record of any movement by the authors or the creative industries in Oman calling for a the establishment of a copyright law. Therefore copyright law is relatively a recent legal development in Oman that took place as a result of pressure from the international community.

The first intellectual property legislation in Oman was issued in 1987 and covered only trademarks, agencies, and trade secrets. This legislation came as part of the natural progress of the legal commercial infrastructure and was required for the smooth operation of the everyday business in the country. Copyright law (Royal Decree No 47/1996) on the other hand became a recognized form of intellectual property almost 10 years after the the first intellectual property law in Oman in 1996 making Oman was one of the last countries in the Gulf to enact copyright legislation. This legislation came as part of Oman’s efforts towards its integration in the international community as it passed the first copyright law in July, then joined WIPO a couple of months later in September of the same year and ratified the Berne Convention in 1998.

The 1996 Omani copyright law granted automatic protection to all forms of literary, scientific, artistic, and cultural works including computer programs for a general period of the lifetime of the author plus 50 years after his death. The law also included criminal offenses such the payment of fines and imprisonment for copyright infringement in certain circumstances.

In preparation for its membership to the WTO in the year 2000, Oman decided to revise all of its intellectual property laws including copyright. This led to the enactment of the Copyright and Neighboring Rights Law of 2000 (Royal Decree No 37/2000) which added protection for performers, broadcasters, and producers of sound recordings among other things.

In 2006, Oman became the fourth Arab country to sign a free trade agreement with the United States and this required it to revise its intellectual property rights again. This led to the enactment of the third and current copyright law in 2008 (Royal Decree No 65/2008). This law remains as one of the latest Arabic copyright legislations and illustrates a very protective copyright model that grants protection for technological protection measures and digital rights managements and provides sophisticated mechanisms for combating border control piracy, court interim measures, and criminal sanctions against copyright infringement.

The Real Victims of Piracy

Even though almost ten years have passed since Oman got its first copyright law, most people still seem to have a strange self-entitlement to everything they find on the internet. The majority of people do not have any feeling of guilt when they illegally download any song, video, or game they did not pay for.

Oman, and many other Arab countries, are in a unique position that makes them detached from primary producers of popular digital content such as the US and Europe – who might not necessarily consider this region as a target for their music or computer programs. It is very difficult for foreign content producers to take legal action against infringers of copyright in Oman and it is impossible for the authorities to regulate illegal downloads on the internet (even though they somehow seem to always have the time and resources to block every single VOIP website they can find).

To the majority of people copyright infringement seems like a victimless crime: musicians and film makers in the US seem to be doing alright, they do not really expect to sell in Oman, of all places, much anyway, and even if these companies did make a loss, they are multinational institutions that can make money through a million other ways.

This makes it very difficult for our region to be taken seriously as a viable market for selling some copyright works. The result of this is that those of us who want to legally buy music in Oman find it very difficult to find any shop that can afford to continue stock up music CDs that nobody buys. Software products rarely ever get an official release in this region and there are no tech support or after sale services for such programs. The gaming industry is totally unregulated in this region and there is never any localization of game content.

The worst problem with piracy is that it makes it very difficult for local musicians, programmers, and game developers to be able to make money from creating local content in this market. Creating a polished work obviously requires money and investment, and you cannot make money from intellectual property works in a place where copyright is not respected. It is no wonder that there are no Omani video games or computer programs (genuine or otherwise) sold in any computer shop in the country.

Oman has had copyright law in place for about a decade now, but it is very difficult to enforce it because of the internet and the fact that content providers will find it very inconvenient to take cross-border legal action. Society itself must start respecting copyright and realize that the biggest loser in all of this is society itself, because if we do not encourage or reward creativity we will continue to only live off works made in other places in the world.

The situation in Oman is not totally hopeless because authorities have realized that the process to create respect for copyright must start from the bottom up, and as a result a special lesson about copyright has been added to the eleventh grade government school syllabus here in Oman in hope it makes students appreciate the importance of copyright and how piracy could be damaging. The college of law at SQU is also expected to start teaching intellectual property as part of the law degree curriculum. That by itself will not instantly make everyone respect copyright, but it is a step in the right direction.

Omani Spam

Email is one of the most abused methods for sending spam as more than 75% of all emails sent in the world are spam messages. I take all logically reasonable methods to protect my email address from being collected by spambots, but like everyone else on this planet, somehow spam still ends up collecting in my inbox. It is very unlikely for me to be fooled by an email scam and I will never buy something from a company that sends me an unsolicited email, but I still hate the amount of time it takes me to go through my email inbox on daily basis to find real messages in the piles of advertisements I never asked for.

Even though spam filters have developed over the years and a great number of spam messages will be recognized and blocked by most email clients, spammers have always been one step ahead of filter technologies and have developed advanced techniques for making sure that their messages are not detected. That is the reason why the best method for combating spam is by relying on legislation rather than technology.

Many countries around the world have criminalized spam and impose various restrictions on those who attempt to send mass commercial messages to the public, such restrictions include the requirement to enable end users to opt-out of any mailing list, prohibition of hiding the sender’s identity, and the prohibition of the collection of email addresses without the consent of their owners.

Until very recently the use of email marketing was not a mainstream strategy for companies in Oman, but along with the growth of the use of the internet in the country came the awareness of the ease at which products and services can be marketed using simple email messages, and now even companies in Oman participate in the shameful act of spam. I personally received an unsolicited email message advertising an upcoming technology exhibition in Muscat, an email message about a local IT solutions company advertising its services to install Google apps for businesses, and many other countless messages from random Omani online discussion boards. I am sure I never gave my email address to any of these senders and none of these messages instructed me on how to unsubscribe.

I doubt that any of these companies think about the consequences of their bulk messages and I do not think that they consider themselves as spammers, yet even though they ought to know that what they are doing is unacceptable, they are still technically not doing anything illegal as the law in Oman does not prohibit sending an unsolicited commercial message to anyone. This got to change before the use of email in Oman becomes bloated with advertisements and online scams.

Until the law clearly makes this an offense, you can play your role in fighting spam by always using the ‘report spam’ or ‘mark as spam’ button if it is made available by your email provider, this helps in detecting future messages as spam for you and other people. Make sure that you do not ever trust a company that sends you an unsolicited email, and never send advertisements yourself to other people who do not explicitly tell you that they are interested in receiving them!

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.