Protection of layout designs of integrated circuits in Oman

By Riyadh Al Balushi

In 2000, Oman became the first Gulf state to introduce legislation for the protection of layout-designs of integrated circuits.

As a result of Oman’s accession to the World Trade Organization on 9 November 2000, the country has in recent years made a concerted effort to provide comprehensive laws for the protection of intellectual property, including layout designs or topographies of integrated circuits.

This is demonstrated by the Industrial Property Rights Law promulgated by Royal Decree 67 of 2008 (as amended by Royal Decree 131 of 2008) (the “IPRL”). The IPRL repealed the Law on the Protection of the Topographies Rights of Integrated Circuits (Promulgated by the Royal Decree No. 41/2000) and includes measures to protect owners of original, registered layout designs of integrated circuits. This article provides a brief overview of the essential elements of the IPRL, specifically concerning the protection of layout designs of integrated circuits in Oman.

The objective of the protection of layout designs of integrated circuits is to provide the owners of registered layout designs the right to prevent others from using the protected layout design, an integrated circuit in which the protected layout design is incorporated or a product incorporating such an integrated circuit, without seeking their prior consent.

What are layout designs of integrated circuits?

Integrated circuits are small chips found in virtually all electronic equipment today. Before the invention of the integrated circuit, assembly workers had to construct circuits by hand, soldering each component in place and connecting them with metal wires. Integrated circuits replicate the functionality of electronic circuits in small, pre-packaged and wireless chips. The functionality of the integrated circuit is defined by a complex series of layers of semiconductors, metals and other materials on a substrate. This layout that determines the configuration of an integrated circuit is called a layout design or a topography.

Efficient layout design of integrated circuits can result in the development of smaller chips which may be cheaper to manufacture. The development of such layout designs usually involves huge amounts of financial investment and intellectual skill, yet may be easily replicated through a photographic analysis of an integrated circuit chip. In order to protect the investments made in the development of new layout designs of integrated circuits, Oman, along with many other countries in the world, has provided a legal mechanism for protecting these layout designs.

Qualification for protection

The Omani IPRL allows the registration of original layout designs. For a layout design to be considered original, the 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 represents a moderate threshold for protection – a layout design could be considered original as long as it has not been copied from elsewhere and is not commonly known by others. However, this could mean that a layout design may be registered regardless of whether or not it brings any advancements or improvements to the field. The requirement that a layout design must not be commonly known among other creators of layout designs could also mean that it may still qualify for protection if a few other creators have created the layout design before, so long as the creator in question created it independently without copying it from another source.

Layout designs that are made up of commonly known combinations of elements and interconnections can still be considered original if the combination, taken as a whole, satisfies the originality requirement stated above. An additional condition for registration in Oman is that the layout design may 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 a registered layout design has, subject to several exceptions, the right to prevent others from:

  • reproducing the protected layout design in whole or in part by integrating it into an integrated circuit or by any other method. This right does not extend to the reproduction of smaller parts of the layout design that by themselves do not satisfy the originality requirement; and
  • importing, selling, or distributing for commercial purposes the protected layout design, an integrated circuit in which the protected layout design is incorporated or a product that incorporates such an integrated circuit.

It is important to note that the protection of layout designs relates only to the actual layout design and not the functionality achieved by that particular layout design. As an example, successfully registering an original layout design of an integrated circuit that is used in a camera to enhance its image processing capability in low light situations will not grant the owner of the registered layout design the right to stop others from creating a similar integrated circuit that executes the same function using a different layout design. Protection for the industrial application of a novel, non-obvious idea is obtained via the registration of patents and not the layout design of integrated circuits.

Permitted uses of registered layout designs

The IPRL, among other exceptions, provides that any person may reproduce a protected layout design without the need to seek the owner’s permission if the reproduction is made for a private purpose or the sole purpose of evaluation, analysis, research or teaching.

An exemption is also provided for a person who imports, sells or distributes for commercial purposes a product or an integrated circuit incorporating a protected layout design if that person did not and had no reasonable ground to know that the product or integrated circuit incorporated an unlawfully reproduced layout design.

In such a situation, that person would still be entitled to continue to import, sell, or distribute any stock that the person already owns or has ordered before the unlawful reproduction of the layout design was made known to the person, on the condition that the person pays the rights holder a reasonable compensation.

The IPRL also provides that the independent creation of an identical layout design by a third party does not constitution an infringement.

Duration of protection

In Oman, in 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 from the date of commencement of protection. This period of protection can start from either:

  1. the date of filing of the application to register the layout design, if the layout design has not been previously used commercially anywhere in the world; or
  2. the date of the first commercial use, anywhere in the world, of the layout design by or with the consent of the rights holder.

Penalties for non-compliance regarding layout designs

Without prejudice to a harsher penalty stipulated in any other law, the IPRL provides that deliberate infringement at a commercial level of an industrial property right shall be punishable by imprisonment for a minimum period of three months up to a maximum of two years and/or a minimum fine of RO 2,000 and a maximum of RO 10,000. In the case of repeated infringement, the penalty will be doubled.

Additionally, the violation by a litigant of an order issued by the court concerning an action pertaining to the application of the IPL is punishable by imprisonment for a minimum period of seven days and a maximum of one month and/or a minimum fine of RO 100 up to a maximum of RO 1,000.

Furthermore, litigants, their lawyers, experts and other officials of the judiciary who have violated an order of the court for the protection of confidential information are also liable.

About the author

Riyadh Al Balushi
Riyadh is a Muscat-based lawyer who works with the Ministry of Legal Affairs of the Sultanate of Oman. His role includes advising the government prior to entry into international treaties, reviewing contracts and issuing legal opinions for other governmental entities. Riyadh was a member of the expert team responsible for drafting the Unified Law for Combating Cybercrime, which was adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council and government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He is fluent in Arabic and English and has experience in negotiating and drafting documents in both languages. Riyadh may be reached at riyadhalbalushi[at]gmail.com.