Integrated Circuits

Protection of Layout-Designs of Integrated Circuits in Oman

(photo credits: oskay)

Oman has been under an obligation to provide protection for layout-design of integrated circuits as a result of its membership to the World Trade Organization. The first law to provide protection for layout-design of integrated circuits was issued in the year 2000 which was later replaced by the more comprehensive Industrial Property Law in 2008.

The objective of the protection of layout-design of integrated circuits is to provide the creators of registered original layout-design the right to stop others from using the same layout in any integrated circuit or product without seeking their prior consent.

What Are Layout-Designs of Integrated Circuits?

Integrated circuits (commonly referred to as ICs) are the small chips found in electronic devices that control the functionality of the device. Prior to the invention of ICs, electronic functionality was created by setting up a series of circuits with semi conductors and wires. ICs replicate the functionality of electronic circuits in small prepackaged wire-free chips. The functionality of the integrated circuit within a chip is defined by layers of mapped layouts which are stacked over each other to regulate the current and create the required the functionality. This layout that determines the functionality of the IC is called a layout-design or a topography.

Effective layout-design of integrated circuits can result in the development of smaller chips which are cheaper to manufacturer and occupy smaller physical space. The development of such layout-designs usually involves high intellectual skill and big financial investment, yet it can be easily replicated through a photographic analysis of a IC chip. In order to protect the investment made in the development of new layout-designs of integrated circuits, Oman, and many around the world, provide a legal mechanism for protecting these layout-designs.

Qualifications For Protection

The Omani Industrial Property Law allows the registration of original layout-designs only. For a layout-design to be considered original, that layout-design must be the result of the creator’s own intellectual effort and must not be commonly known among other creators of layout-designs at the moment of creation.

This is a very threshold for protection, as any layout-design would be considered original as long as it has not been copied from elsewhere and not commonly known by other people. This also means that a layout-design could be registered regardless of whether or not it brings any new advancement to the field or offers any special performance improvement. The requirement for the layout-design not to be commonly known among other creators of layout-designs consequently means that it can still qualify for protection if a few other creators have created it before as long as the creator in question created it independently without copying it from another source.

For layout-designs which are made up of commonly known element combinations, the layout-design in question can still be considered original if the collection of all these elements as a whole satisfies the originality requirement.

An additional condition for registration in Oman is that the layout-design can only be registered if it has not been used commercially anywhere in the world for more than two years.

Scope of Protection

The owner of the registered layout-design has the right to stop others from doing the following acts:

  1. Reproducing the protected layout design in whole or in part by integrating it into an IC or through any other method. This right does not extend to stop the creator of the registered right from stopping others from reproducing smaller parts of the layout that do not satisfy the originality requirement on their own.
  2. Importing, selling, or distributing for commercial purposes the protected layout-design or an IC or a product that integrates the layout-design.

It is important to note that the protection of the layout-design of ICs relates only the actual layout-design and not the functionality achieved by that layout-design. This means that, for example, successfully registering an original layout-design of an integrated circuit that is used in cameras to enhance their processing capability of low light photographs, will not grant the owner of the layout-design the right to stop others from creating a similar IC that executes the same exact function using a different layout-design. Protection for the industrial application of a novel non-obviously idea is done through the registration of patents and not layout-design of integrated circuits.

Allowed Uses of Registered Layout-Designs

The law provides that any person may reproduce a protected layout-design without the need to seek the permission of layout-design owner if the reproduction is made for a private purpose or for the sole purpose of evaluation, analysis, or teaching.

The law does not object to the practice of reverse engineering for the purpose of developing new original layout-designs as it states that an original layout-design would be considered in violation of the rights of the registered layout-design owner, if the second original-layout design was built as a result of the evaluation of the protected registered layout-design.

An exemption is also made for a person who imports, sells, or distributes for commercial purposes a product or an IC incorporating a protected layout-design if that person did not know and had no reasonable ground to know that the product or the IC incorporated an unlawfully reproduced layout-design. In this situation, that person would be entitled to continue to import, sell, or distribute the stock he already has or already ordered before his knowledge of the unlawful incorporation of the layout-design on the condition that he pays the right holder a fair compensation.

The law in Oman also explicitly specifies that independent creation of an identical layout-design by a third party does not constitution an infringement.

Duration of Protection

In Oman, order for a creator of a layout-design to acquire protection for his work, the creator must register his layout-design with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

A registered layout-design is protected for a period of ten years. This period of protection can start from two different points:

  1. It may start from the date of deposit of the registration application if the layout-design was not commercially used anywhere in the world prior to that deposit.
  2. It may start from the date the layout-design was commercially used anywhere in the world if the layout-design was commercially used prior to the deposit of the registration application.

Censorship and Enemies of the Internet

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are listed as Enemies of the Internet in a recent report published by Reporters Without Borders. UAE on the other hand is listed as a country worthy of being under surveillance due to the deteriorating conditions of freedom on the Internet in the country. Oman is not mentioned at all in this report, but does this mean that our Internet is truly free and open?

The Enemies of the Internet report provides a scary overview of how censorship on the Internet was a major issue over the past year. It talks about how Egypt decided to shut off the whole Internet in an attempt to control the riots, Iran’s grand plan for its national ‘Halal’ Internet, China’s use of 50 cents bloggers to spread propaganda on the web, and the US attempt to censor the Internet on grounds of copyright infringement.

International summits now talk about the ‘right to be connected’ as a fundamental right for survival in today’s world, especially as communication blackouts are now commonly used by oppressive regimes to cripple dissenting movements.

Learning about the extreme incidents taking place around the world, especially in countries as close as UAE and Bahrain, makes Oman seem as a relatively more lenient and open environment.
The keyword here is of course ‘relatively’, because the Internet still remains very much censored here as well. Fortunately though, censorship on the Omani Internet is primarily done to block pornographic and similar websites with the aim of protecting society values and preventing minors from being exposed to such offensive content. The process by which websites are filtered is carried out by an automation software that blocks content categorically. Websites can also be blocked on the basis of individual decisions made by authorities. An example of this is the decision to block the blog of Ammar al Maamari, a Omani blogger living abroad who regularly leaks highly confidential information in violation of the law and criticises His Majesty the Sultan and the government in an offensive manner.

Using the method of censorship to ‘protect’ society values might have worked in the early days of the Internet when there was a limited and manageable number of websites online, but there is no practical way of selectively censoring the Internet today when an unquantifiable amount of content is uploaded to the web by the minute.

With all the censorship made by Omantel and Nawras, any person in Oman can still easily do a quick Google image search to be entertained with unlimited amounts of pornographic content. As long as you can connect to the World Wide Web, there will always be a method to access blocked content. Subscribers to RSS feeds of Ammar’s blog did not even realise that the website got blocked because the content of the blog is routed to them through their RSS readers which are not affected by the local censorship. Ammar also created a private mirror of his blog for anyone in Oman to access upon sending him an access request. It is clear that censorship has totally failed from stopping the Omani public from reading Ammar’s blog.

Censorship of the Internet is not a major problem in Oman at the moment, but Oman should be careful not to take the approach taken by some of our neighbours, because it is really necessary for the public to have uncensored access to the Internet for their right to freedom of expression to have any value in today’s world.