The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled
The treaty, approved on June 27, 2013 after more than a week of intense debate among negotiators meeting under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), is the culmination of years of work on improving access for the blind, visually impaired, and print-disabled persons to published works in formats such as Braille, large print text and audio books.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 314 million blind and visually impaired persons in the world, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries. However, the World Blind Union estimates that of the million or so books published worldwide every year, less than five per cent are made available in formats accessible to visually impaired persons, less than 1% in the Global South.
The treaty requires parties to adopt national law provisions that permit the reproduction, distribution and making available published works in accessible formats without having to seek permission from copyright holders in each case. It also allows the exchange of accessible format works across borders by organizations that serve people who are blind, visually impaired, and print disabled. This will increase the availability of accessible works as different countries will be able to each produce accessible versions of materials, which can then be shared with each other instead of duplicating efforts by adapting the same work. The treaty also ensures authors and publishers that the system will not expose their published works to misuse or distribution to anyone other than the intended beneficiaries.
The treaty will enter into force after it has been ratified by 20 WIPO members that agree to be bound by its provisions.
The details of the treaty are very legalistic and we’ll have to wait and see how certain clauses are interpreted, but in short, the treaty signed last week will achieve the following:
It would allow so-called authorised entities (usually libraries or NGOs) in one country to send accessible format books directly to authorised entities or blind individuals in another country. Prior to the treaty this was often unlawful and resulted in large libraries of accessible books being trapped behind national borders. As a result, the same books had to be made accessible from scratch in each new country where a blind person needed it. Now cross-border shipment will be legal and with little administrative burden.
The treaty also allows for the unlocking of digital locks on e-books for the benefit of blind people. In other words, a Kindle book or iBook with digital rights management could now be unlocked and printed in Braille without consulting the rights holder.
Crucially, most of the language concerning commercial availability was dropped from the treaty late on in negotiations. Such language would have required authorised entities to check whether books are commercially available in the local market before making and providing accessible versions. This would have introduced substantial red-tape and would have had a chilling effect on the implementation of the treaty. It would also have set a higher standard for blind people than for normal libraries, where there is no restriction on providing commercially available books. (Commercial availability does however remain an option for countries who already have such provisions in their national law and choose to use it.)
Yannis Natsis, TACD advocacy officer