A groundbreaking international agreement to address the “book famine” for blind and print-disabled people is now set to go into force after passing another key milestone today. The agreement requires countries to allow the reproduction and distribution of accessible ebooks by limiting the scope of copyright restrictions.
The Marrakesh agreement takes aim at the global shortage of ebooks available in suitable formats for the print disabled, which in some regions is as low as 1% of published books. At the time of its completion, only 57 of the 184 member countries of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) had copyright exceptions for this purpose, and inconsistencies between them made sharing books between countries nearly impossible.
The treaty was signed by more than 75 countries, but just signing a treaty does not make it law; it needed 20 ratifications or accessions before going into force. India became the first to ratify exactly two years ago, and Canada’s accession today is the crucial twentieth. According to WIPO, that sets in motion a process to bring Marrakesh into force on September 30 of this year.
That’s another significant step for a treaty that has already made some important breakthroughs as the first international treaty focused exclusively on the rights of users of copyrighted material. Typically, if user’s rights are considered at all, they’re relegated to a section on “limitations and exceptions” or even as non-binding introductory text. In the Marrakesh Agreement, they are front and center.
That focus, and the prospect that it could set a precedent for future WIPO agreements, led groups like the Motion Picture Association of America to oppose the treaty throughout its decade-long negotiation. Although the WIPO negotiation process is far from perfect, its transparency and openness allow public interest organizations to push back on industry group positions. One of the leaders of that negotiation was Knowledge Ecology International; EFF gave its director Jamie Love a Pioneer Award in 2013.
Despite this victory, the work is far from over. Much remains to be done to ensure that all 75 countries that signed the agreement also ratify it and enact its provisions into local law. In particular, Europe's ratification will be needed to unlock the huge stock of books in European languages such as French, Spanish, and Portuguese that cannot yet be legally shared with poorer countries that also speak those languages.
United States law is already compliant with Marrakesh, but the government has not yet ratified the agreement. To do so requires a two-thirds vote from the Senate, and then a formal ratification from the President. Even at a time when passing legislation has proven exceedingly difficult, the Marrakesh Agreement would be a relatively easy and uncontroversial way to demonstrate leadership internationally and help bring books to millions of blind, visually impaired, and print-disabled people around the world.