Closed Education: Copyright Provisions in the Omani School Education Law

The School Education Law that was issued last month is a substantive piece of legislation that covers all aspects of school education: from the establishment of schools and the admission of students, to the rights and duties of faculty staff. An interesting provision in this key Omani law is found in article 77 stipulating that the Ministry of Education owns copyright over the books and curriculums prepared by the ministry. This is a deviation from article 4(a) of the Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Law which excludes official government documents from copyright protection. This new provision in article 77 of the School Education Law will limit the ability of teachers, students, and parents to fully utilise these textbooks without providing any benefits to the Ministry of Education.

Copyright Protection and Official Documents

Prior to the issuance of the School Education Law, the extent to which government textbooks were protected by copyright law was governed by article 4(a) of the Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Law which provides that official documents are exempt from copyright protection. This meant that any official government document—obviously those not classified—is automatically deemed part of the public domain and may be copied, translated, and used freely for commercial and non-commercial purposes without the need to obtain any approval from the government.

The Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Law does not provide a definition of what an official document means but provides a non-exhaustive list of examples that include laws, treaties, and court judgments. For this reason, it is legal for a website such as Decree to translate and publish laws without the need to obtain the approval of the government.

Even though this was never tested in court, it was possible to argue that government textbooks are official documents for the purpose of article 4(a) since these books are officially published by the government and are in essence text documents. Accordingly, it would have been legal to copy and redistribute government textbooks without the need to obtain the permission of any government entity.

The exemption of official documents is based on a number of policy principles such as the public interest in having unrestricted access to official documents, and the fact that government works are created using public funds and are not produced with the intention to make profit, which meant that there is no need to grant them copyright protection. The government has other mechanisms to control the dissemination of documents which are confidential, such as the provisions found in the Law on the Classification of State Records and the Governance of Protected Places.

Copyright Under School Education Law

The new School Education Law introduces a specific provision in article 77 stipulating that copyright over curriculum and the books prepared and developed by the Ministry of Education are protected by copyright and goes further to confirm that they may not be printed, copied, reproduced, translated, or stored on any electronic system without the prior written permission of the Ministry of Education.

Due to the nature in which the Omani Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Law is drafted, any use of a protected copyright work done without permission will be deemed a violation of copyright protection if it does not fall within the scope of the very limited exceptions found in article 20 of the law. For example, the following uses are now deemed a violation of the Omani Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Law if done without the permission of the Ministry of Education:

1- Copying a textbook by any institution to take advantage of technology tools to convert a written book into a format that is compatible with screen readers to assist visually impaired students.

2- Scanning parts of a textbook to an iPad or any other device by parents to encourage their children to use these devices for educational purposes.

3- Copying parts of a textbook by a student to feed into a new generative AI tool to take advantage of new technologies that can create presentations and interactive tools that improve the learning process.

One might say that the School Education Law does not actually prohibit any of these acts, but merely requires that the Ministry of Education approves them. While this is true in theory, in practice, like all other ministries, the Ministry of Education does not have a mechanism, such as a licensing application form, to approve uses of copyright works it owns, and accordingly there is no practical way to obtain this approval. Even if there was a mechanism set in place, it is extremely unreasonable for the Ministry of Education to allocate resources to examine every single request made by a parent, student, or even teacher to use the textbook for anything other than reading it.

It is also easy to disregard this whole matter as being a hypothetical issue with no real-life implications as the Ministry of Education might not realistically take legal action against a teacher, a student, or a parent. But this is not actually guaranteed, and the ministries do take action against individuals. And even if it is true that the Ministry of Education has no plans on suing anyone, this in itself can be a bigger problem for both the legal and educational systems, as it communicates to society in general and the audience of the copyright works in question in particular—the students—that the law does not actually matter and nothing will happen if a person does not respect the law, which is obviously not the message that textbooks should be conveying to their readers.

Obsession with Protection and Control?

Article 77 of the School Education Law is an example of a culture of excessive protection and control that is prevalent in many places. From a copyright protection point of view, many people mistakingly assume that stronger copyright protection is better, when the reality is that we learn many of our basic skills by copying, and having a stringent copyright regime is not actually in the interest of society or creators themselves. There is also this other classical aspect of government control where the government wishes to control the dissemination of knowledge even if that has no value in itself and even if that goes against the goals of the service that the government wishes to deliver, i.e. education in this case.

While article 77 is, without a doubt, bad policy, it is possible for the government to minimise its negative aspects by applying open licences to specific textbooks that they would like to make open by adopting the Creative Commons licences or by developing a specific educational licence, similar to the Open Government Licence used by the Omani government on its websites.