Piracy of films, music and innovative technology is stunting creativity in the UAE, experts say.
The Ministry of Economy plans to restructure the intellectual property system and bring in new copyright laws, following a study by the Abu Dhabi Technology Development Committee expected to be released this month.
The plans include streamlined licensing with reduced bureaucracy, and tougher policing, with special intellectual piracy courts.
Industry specialists say drastic changes are needed to protect intellectual property rights, particularly in music, film, technology, book publishing and television.
David Butorac, chief executive of OSN Network, the cable and satellite operator, said pay-TV piracy in the Mena region cost operators more than US$500 million (Dh1.8bn) a year in lost revenue.
Governments must recognise the true cost of piracy, which "is too often seen as a victimless crime", he said. TV piracy affected the broadcaster's ability to invest in expanding the local production industry, which in turn made it harder to compete with the rest of the world.
The music industry has also been hard hit. "Illegal downloading has completely changed the music scene and makes it impossible for people like myself to survive," said the producer Joshua Williams, who runs the JFW Music & Sound recording studio in Al Quoz in Dubai.
“Bands have to literally give their music away. The idea of getting a record deal, someone paying for your record deal and then making a million dollars, is dead,” said Mr Williams, who has worked with artists such as Fergie, from Black Eyed Peas, and Britney Spears.
Hussain Spek Yoosuf, a local music-rights expert, hoped the new regulations would include a government-supported music rights society to streamline the licensing of music.
“It’s virtually impossible for a locally based songwriter to have a career here. Musicians don’t earn royalties locally, so they all have to have a day job,” he said. “They need to aggregate all music into a legitimate body sanctioned by the Government.”
Ahmed Saeed Al Calily, who heads the Technology Development Committee, said the UAE already had an intellectual property system among the top 25 per cent in the word, but there were still many improvements to be made.
He said plans were being put in place for a more efficient intellectual property registration and licensing system, with as little red tape as possible.
Bachir Abouchakra, an intellectual property expert at the law firm DLA Piper, said a more streamlined process would help to create an infrastructure that was more conducive to generating local intellectual property – including technological inventions.
Patenting an invention requires approval from both the UAE Patent Office and the Austrian Patent Office, which can take years.
Mr Al Calily said patents were one of the key gaps identified by the committee. “Patents are an important part of the innovation lifecycle, especially in academia, as they facilitate the technology transfer process. Unfortunately, patent output from Abu Dhabi academia is relatively low, partially due to lack of awareness regarding the importance of patents and the patent application process,” he said.
Dr Hasan Al Nashash, a professor of electrical and biomedical engineering at the American University of Sharjah, said changes could happen only if the Government gave financial support to inventors.
“They are always talking about a knowledge-based economy, but how much money is actually generated from technology and how much is from oil?” he said.
When he applied for funding for an invention that could eliminate 90 per cent of diabetes complications it took two years for the National Research Foundation to get back to him, only to turn down his request.
Dr Abdallah Alnajjar, president of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation in Sharjah, said the lack of a knowledge-based society was damaging the economy.
“Innovation is the way forward, but Arabs have a very bad stereotype as people who are not mentally ready to accept the international openness that exists in the global community,” he said.
He said it was now time for the UAE to instead export its knowledge and “contribute to the advancement of mankind”.
The Government plans to make its policing system more effective in identifying piracy infringements, which includes creating a court system capable of handling the more complex cases.
“They need to have specialised tribunals with qualified jurists and practitioners, who understand the field and can properly manage infringements claims,” said Mr Abouchakra.
Dr Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, president of the Arab arm of the Licensing Executive Society International, said piracy should be tackled by encouraging proper licensing.
“Instead of leading the process of technology development into the hands of pirates, we need to create the right environment, which also includes a good legal structure,” he said.
The head of the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance, Scott Butler, said police were being proactive in rooting out piracy, with most cases resulting in jail terms, but local creativity was affected by rampant piracy in the rest of the Middle East.
“We are being impaired here because of the ineffectiveness of tackling piracy in the larger markets,” he said. “The UAE would be the [intellectual property] centre of the Middle East, thanks to our free zones, but we need a larger market, like Saudi Arabia, to launch [anti-piracy measures].”