August 3, 2012 | By Carolina Rossini

International Failure: Are We Going to Let Countries Disenfranchise the Visually Impaired?

There is a chronic lack of material in formats accessible to the world’s visually impaired and print disabled citizens. Visually impaired people face a “book famine” in which 95% of books published in rich countries and 99% in poorer countries are never converted into accessible formats such as audio, large print or braille.1 The fastest way to address this famine is to change the copyright law: create exceptions and limitations that permit shifting of content into formats accessible to the blind, and allow cross-border exchange of content in accessible formats.

Copyright maximalists argue against change, pointing out that individual countries can make these changes themselves. However, despite the discretion left open to countries by the international copyright framework, only 57 countries—representing fewer than half of WIPO’s 184 Member States—were identified as having created specific exceptions in their national laws for the benefit of the visually impaired.2 And as the Sullivan report (2007) documents, there is considerable uncertainty about the legality of importing and exporting accessible material across borders, restricting access to knowledge and requiring unnecessary duplication.

EFF believes that protecting liberties online includes making sure that all people, regardless of disability, can participate in the online world. We therefore support a binding treaty to guarantee access to copyrighted materials through a set of clear exceptions and limitations for the visually impaired. Although some are suggesting the use of international norms instead, there is no evidence that non-binding instruments actually will protect the liberties of the visually impaired. A study released in 2011 by Yale University also shows that in this context of human rights and copyright, soft law would do more harm than good and a binding treaty is needed.

We’re not the only ones calling for a treaty. And it’s seemed at times as if we were close to achieving one. But in the last World Intellectual Organization (WIPO) meeting in Geneva, from July 16 to July 25, 2012, member countries again failed to implement a treaty that enables copyright law to serve the visually impaired. And the scenario going forward looks just as bad, as this map of European countries indicates. Worse, not only is the US not helping, it has probably stalled the treaty for another year.

(source: http://www.euroblind.org/wipo)

The meeting itself was disappointingly opaque. All through the supposedly open event, WIPO member states were still holding informal meetings that were closed to observation by even accredited organizations like EFF. The WIPO secretariat finally circulated, late in the night before the last day of negotiations, the conclusions text that follows.

a) that an inter-sessional meeting of the SCCR be held in Geneva between the 2012 General Assembly and the 25th session of the SCCR, and that funding be provided according to the usual formula, for experts from developing countries to participate in the meeting. The exact dates will be determined by the WIPO Secretariat. 

b) that the item of limitations and exceptions for visually impaired persons/persons with print disabilities will continue in the 25th session of the SCCR with a view to conclude or advance substantially the text-based work on limitations and exceptions for visually impaired persons/persons with print disabilities. 

c) that the General Assembly convene an extraordinary session to be held in December 2012 to evaluate the text from SCCR/25 and to make a decision on whether to convene a Diplomatic Conference in 2013.

The Committee also is moving forward with work on the "Working document on an international instrument on limitations on limitations and exceptions for visually impaired persons/persons with print disabilities" (document SCCR/23/7), and adopted a revised version contained in document SCCR/24/93

The World Blind Union is one of the organizations that has been campaigning for years now at WIPO and other venues for the removal of copyright barriers which prevent blind, partially sighted, dyslexic and other “reading disabled” people from accessing books. Even exhausted from ten days of meetings, Chris Friend of WBU told James Love of Knowledge Ecology International that his organization will keep moving their work forward.

The impact of publishers and their lobbying efforts is the most important factor in the inability of WIPO to agree on terms for a treaty. To publishers, it’s better to disenfranchise the blind than to allow any exceptions or limitations to copyright. In this video, Alan Adler (Vice President for Legal and Government Affairs for the Association of American Publishers—AAP) explains why his organization opposes a WIPO treaty on this topic.

We’re talking about a treaty to help the visually impaired, whose disability in a digital age is tantamount to a loss of liberty and full participation in the knowledge society. One of the reasons why the World Blind Union and other organizations with similar focus support the treaty is that they don’t want to be second-class citizens. How is a copyright change that makes the visually impaired full citizens in electronic society so difficult to achieve?


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