This week the World Intellectual Property Organization's Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights is meeting in Geneva to discuss a proposed treaty intended to increase access to books and other information in formats accessible to the world's blind, visually impaired and print disabled citizens.
There's a chronic shortage of accessible format material across the world. In the U.S. it's estimated that only 5% of published works are available in formats accessible to visually impaired persons. In the U.K. it's 4% and in India it's 0.5%. The treaty is intended to address two things that have led to this situation: first, the lack of exceptions in countries' national copyright laws that would permit creation of accessible format copies of works for the visually impaired without having to seek prior permission from copyright owners; second, uncertainty about the legality of importing and exporting accessible format material created under a national exception or special licence in one country for use by visually impaired citizens in another country. This is an international problem in need of a global solution. As a 1985 report which considered these issues recommended, an international instrument is needed to facilitate the creation and distribution of accessible format material across borders. It requires an international solution.
This afternoon, in a thoughtful and clear statement, the U.S. delegation to WIPO acknowledged the concerns of the visually impaired community and suggested how the international copyright community should proceed in addressing the needs of those with print disabilities.
Key excerpts are below, but the statement is worth reading in its entirety. It is refreshing to see such an influential voice at WIPO come out in support of a balanced system of international copyright law that serves the needs of all the world's citizens.
Our commitment to reaching an international consensus on copyright exceptions for persons with print disabilities
First, the United States believes that the time has come for WIPO Members to work toward some form of international consensus on basic, necessary limitations and exceptions in copyright law for persons with print disabilities. This international consensus could take multiple forms, including a model law endorsed by the SCCR, a detailed Joint Recommendation to be adopted by the WIPO General Assemblies, and/or a multilateral treaty. The United States is open to discussing and exploring all these options.
The United States believes that the initial most productive course of action may be a work program that begins with a series of serious, focused consultations aimed at producing a carefully-crafted Joint Recommendation of the Berne Assembly and the WIPO General Assembly. We further believe this initial Joint Recommendation could be a step toward the development of a treaty establishing basic copyright limitations and exceptions for persons with print disabilities.
The first goal of international consensus in this area
In our consultations and review it has become clear to us that the most pressing problem — the one identified repeatedly by experts — is the cross-border distribution of special format materials made for persons with print disabilities, whether these special format materials are made under copyright exceptions in national law or special licensing arrangements. Therefore, the United States believes that our first goal should be to reach international consensus on the free exportation and importation of special format materials for persons with print disabilities in all countries.
Further international consensus on basic exceptions for print disabilities The United States is also prepared to participate in a WIPO work program to establish further international consensus on specific exceptions and limitations for persons with print disabilities that should be part of national copyright laws.
A balanced system of international copyright law
We recognize that some in the international copyright community believe that any international consensus on substantive limitations and exceptions to copyright law would weaken international copyright law. The United States does not share that point of view. The United States is committed to both better exceptions in copyright law and better enforcement of copyright law. Indeed, as we work with countries to establish consensus on proper, basic exceptions within copyright law, we will ask countries to work with us to improve the enforcement of copyright. This is part and parcel of a balanced international system of intellectual property.