June 27, 2013 | By Maira Sutton

Historic Milestone for Rights of Readers as UN Negotiators Finalize Treaty for the Blind

Member states of the United Nations concluded the draft of an international treaty this week that gives people with visual and reading disabilities better access to copyrighted works. The treaty comes as the result of collective efforts to carve out protections for the blind and reading disabled that faced years of resistance from rightsholder industries. Drafting efforts spanned nearly a decade at the UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), culminating in a final session in Marrakesh, Morocco running from June 17 until they finalized the treaty on Tuesday.

People with reading and visual disabilities have faced a “book famine,” in which only 7% of published books are converted into accessible formats in the richest countries of the world. That number is even lower in the poorest regions, where only 1% of books are available. New technologies could have already drastically improved the state of things, but over-restrictive copyright has hindered the production and distribution of books in accessible formats. Only 57 of WIPO’s 184 Member States have legal exceptions to copyright for these purposes [pdf], and even worse, inconsistent policies between countries made it almost impossible to share books between countries.

The treaty, called the Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities, carves out robust exceptions to copyright to make it legal for print disabled people and organizations to make copies of published works accessible. In addition, the treaty legalizes the import and export of accessible books without permission from publishers (removing a barrier that threatened to be a big hurdle in many regions of the world).

More detailed analyses of its provisions are yet to come, but the final text of the treaty has been posted on the WIPO website. However, advocacy groups at the negotiations had many positive things to say about the final text. This is Knowledge Ecology International’s statement on the final agreement:

The treaty will provide a dramatic and massive improvement in access to reading materials for persons in common languages, such as English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Arabic, and it will provide the building blocks for global libraries to service blind persons. On the issues that mattered the most for blind persons, such as the ability to deliver documents across borders to individuals, and to break technical measures, the treaty was a resounding success.

In their closing statement, the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue praised the concluded text of the treaty:

It is the first international treaty that focuses exclusively on limitations and exceptions to copyright to extend user rights, favoring users as opposed to the rightholders. Concretely, it introduces, for the first time in an international treaty, some new doctrines in international copyright law that are of special significance such as fair use.

It has always been clear that such a treaty would be hugely beneficial for the world’s blind and reading disabled, but that hadn't stopped many companies from standing in its way or working to influence U.S. and EU delegates to do so on their behalf. The treaty would not even cover films or other audiovisual works, and yet the Motion Picture Association of America tried to do everything in its power to stop it. Even companies like Caterpillar and Exxon Mobil opposed the treaty, claiming that it would set a “dangerous precedent” and potentially harm their patent rights. After years of this lobbying, the U.S. and EU seemed unwavering in their support for these corporations' positions. But the delegates from these countries finally came around to support the treaty.

This achievement is notable in demonstrating how more transparent, international policymaking can work. While the WIPO drafting process is far from perfect, the process is far better than the utter secrecy that shrouds trade negotiations such as the TPP. This treaty should still be pointed to as an example of how a range of interests can come together to draft international copyright policy that respects and addresses our rights as users.

So does this mean it’s all over? Not quite. The treaty still needs to be ratified by each of the national governments of the WIPO member states. Seeing how unrelentingly the copyright industries fought to delegitimize the treaty through the years, they are likely to shift their attention towards blocking its ratification by key countries, such as the EU and the U.S. If they succeed, it may serve to be a huge encumbrance to the treaty’s efficacy, since so many popular and accessible works originate from these countries.

Still, this is a major milestone for readers and content owners around the world. This treaty would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of Knowledge Ecology International, the World Blind Union, the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, and many, many others. We applaud the individuals and organizations that have continued to fight for the rights of the blind and people with reading disabilities, and look forward to working with them to get this treaty ratified once and for all.

 

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To see the final text of the treaty, go here: http://wipo.int/meetings/en/doc_details.jsp?doc_id=241683

For all updates from the Marrakesh negotiations, visit http://keionline.org/r2r/marrakesh


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