This week, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is hosting the 25th Session of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR/25). The agenda is focused, as it should be, on finalizing a longstanding discussion: the need for an international instrument to protect the rights of visually impaired persons and persons with print disabilities. Copyright protections create barriers for people with disabilities, yet big publishers continue to block efforts to create exceptions to remedy the problem even as hundreds of millions of people would stand to benefit worldwide. In the US alone, those with print disabilities represent 30 million people. According to an estimate by the World Health Organization, there are about 285 million visually impaired people in the world, and 90% of those are in the developing world.

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

Copyright maximalists—including the Association of American Publishers, which opposes any treaty that creates rights for information users instead of corporations—argue against any change. According to them, individual countries are able to make adaptations themselves. However, only 57 countries representing fewer than half of WIPO’s 184 Member States [pdf] were identified as having created specific exceptions in their national laws for the benefit of the visually impaired. This is simply not adequate. 

The blind should not be treated like second-tier citizens and considered as an afterthought. The protection of liberties online includes making sure that all people, regardless of ability, can participate in the digital world. As technology advances and more books move from hard-copy print to electronic formats, people with print disabilities deserve the opportunity to enjoy access to books on an equal basis with others. For this reason, EFF has supported a binding international instrument, a treaty, on this matter since the beginning of such discussions at WIPO.

In one of the corridor conversations at WIPO, the publishers’ lobbyists have said they do not want to give a “trophy” treaty for those that fight for access to knowledge. The concept that a treaty that would significantly help the visually impaired participate in the literary world would be considered a “trophy” is offensive on the merits. The entertainment and publishing industry has already gotten many such trophy-treaties themselves: They got the WIPO Internet treaties, they got the Performers Treaty, and a couple of decades ago they got TRIPS. It’s time for them to stop kidding themselves and for us to square the deal and get some balance in copyright.

After the WIPO intersectional meeting last October, KEI affirmed with frustration:

In regards to [sic] copyright exceptions for persons who are blind or have other disabilities, it is unfortunate that the United States and some countries in Europe have yet to agree that the nature of the instrument will be a treaty. They certainly don't have a problem calling for a broadcasting treaty, even when they aren't sure what problem it will solve, or how it will work. What is needed for disabilities is a treaty that changes access on the ground, which means it must not be saddled with complicated and unworkable procedures. […] It should build [sic] upon the most robust and effective national exceptions in practice today, with a mandate to share files between countries, when use is lawful in both countries. (KEI, 4 October)

Only one day is put aside in the SCCR/25 agenda for discussing a treaty for the blind and those with print disabilities, and that is not promising. Anyone who has been to Geneva negotiations knows that a single day is only enough time to get coffee and fill the negotiating text with brackets for amendment. It’s unfortunately likely that this treaty will again be shunted aside in favor of initiatives that create more barriers, instead of more rights for users and consumers.

The US and the European Union have been the main forces behind the stalled negotiations. Now that Obama is re-elected, we expect him to stand by his April 2012 joint statement issued with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, expressing support for an international instrument that “ensures that copyright is not a barrier to equal access to information, culture, and education for visually impaired persons and persons with print disabilities." The only effective mechanism is a binding international treaty that mandates countries to empower those with disabilities to fully participate in the online world.

Where We Are and What Lies Ahead

The WIPO General Assembly approved a road map that could lead to a historic Diplomatic Conference in 2013 for an international treaty focused on improving access to published works for persons who are visually impaired or persons with print disabilities. The SCCR hosted inter-sessional meetings from October 17-19, 2012 to work on the text of the instrument. The SCCR is meeting this week, from November 19-23, 2012, and will continue discussions on the text with the objective of concluding or substantially advancing the text-based work on this topic. Member states agreed to convene an extraordinary meeting of the General Assembly in December 2012 to assess progress on the text and decide whether to convene a Diplomatic Conference.


11/19 Update From Geneva:

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