ABU DHABI // Inventors and entrepreneurs will soon be able to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that can add years to the time it takes to protect a new idea.
The Ministry of Economy is planning a major overhaul of the process for patent applications, seeking to encourage more local innovation.
The Government will remove itself as a middleman in back-and-forth dealings between local researchers and the European Patent Office (EPO), a process that can draw out for years.
Currently, documents must be translated into Arabic and notarised by the judicial department before they are queued for processing by the UAE Patent Office, which has a backlog of applications going back several years.
Once that office is satisfied with the application, the file is translated back to English and sent to the Austrian Patent Office, where international applications for the EPO are processed. Queries are then funnelled back through the UAE office, slowing down the process further.
Officials and local law firms have held meetings in recent months with academics and corporations, detailing plans to streamline the process by automatically accepting patents granted by the EPO. This would mean that European patents would be honoured in local civil courts, offering better legal protection for inventions developed in the UAE.
The move, which would echo a system used in Singapore, is meant to encourage innovation as part of the country's 2030 vision of a knowledge-based economy, according to Mohammed Nayal, senior manager of the newly created Abu Dhabi Technology Development Committee, which organised the meetings.
Only a handful of patents have successfully passed through the ministry's costly and tedious application process, which takes about seven years, Mr Nayal said.
But scientists across industries say they will still continue to rely on patents filed overseas because they doubt whether patent and copyright protection laws here will be adequately enforced.
Patent owners have the right to exclude others from making, using or selling their new technology without their permission for the life of the granted patent. Copyright laws protect the creative expression of an idea from being copied. So if a copy of a computer software programme is made, that would be copyright infringement, while software created using the same method would violate a patent.
Raza Rizvi, a technology and intellectual property lawyer for Simmons & Simmons law firm in Dubai, said UAE-based researchers were reluctant to file locally for patents because the US and Europe offered broader protection. The first step for building confidence in the UAE's patent laws would be to federalise the system and strengthen enforcement, he said.
The laws vary from emirate to emirate, and while courts can order someone to pay royalties, it is currently not possible to obtain an injunction preventing someone from violating a patent.
"I think there are still structural improvements that need to be made for confidence to grow in an intellectual property regime here," he said. "Around the world, one of the most powerful tools you have as a rights holder is to prevent someone from using your idea without your permission, and the country needs a court that understands the urgency of that."
Khaled Shuaib, an associate professor of networking at United Arab Emirates University, holds two US patents for video transport network systems now used by the US mobile phone network Verizon. He said he and his colleagues think filing for a UAE patent is not worth the trouble because "there are no clear rules"
"There is a feeling that it would not be internationally recognised or respected at all, and that your rights to your property might not be protected, even in this country," he said.
Ben Hughes, a researcher at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, recently filed for a patent in the UK for a zero-energy cooling system he developed based on traditional wind towers. He has no plans to file for a patent here.
"Intellectual property is a minefield of bureaucracy and lawsuits, and for something this important I would rather avoid the headache of dealing with these types of things here and just trust that my rights with the UK registry are enough," he said.
The Government's efforts to improve the system "will certainly increase confidence in the legal landscape here, and that confidence really does underpin any economy", he said.
"It could mean more people inclined and perhaps inspired to exploit what they develop here, so it is a mid to long-term project that moves Dubai and Abu Dhabi away from being dependent on human capital abroad and moving toward independence in that respect."
Little guidance is available for those seeking patents here, said Gautam Sen, the vice provost of research and graduate studies at the American University of Sharjah.
"It is not clear who to approach for advice, whether something is patentable, whether it is worth going through the process or paying the fees, even how to navigate an official website on the issue of patents here," he said. "There needs to be a simplified, enforceable, encouraging system and environment here, and perhaps a completely separate federal authority to handle intellectual property issues."
The current system "discourages innovation", said Steven Griffiths, director of institute initiatives for the Masdar Institute. He added that while the university had only filed US patents, it would consider filing in the UAE where there is "an attractive market for a specific technology" as well as "plans for hi-tech industry".
"We see it as very important to put policies and procedures in place that will make it attractive for inventors and international corporations to be here, and that foundation needs to be set now."