Cross-party coalition asks EU to support Treaty for Visually Impaired

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Many millions of EU citizens, such as blind or dyslexic people, have a disability which prevents them from reading standard sized print. They can read the same books as the rest of the EU’s citizens, but require “accessible formats” of these books, such as large print, audio or braille. However, publishers rarely make such books, and so it is mostly left to charities to do so with scarce resources. As a result, only some five per cent of published works are ever made available in accessible formats. This is a “book famine”.

There is an ongoing and unmet need for international copyright law to be changed, so that organisations in the EU which make accessible books can legally share their collection with others in countries outside the EU, and vice-versa. That would increase the number of accessible books available to print disabled EU citizens and to people in other countries who share a language with an EU Member State.

The Commission has sponsored a Memorandum of Understanding to help tackle this problem. It was signed on 14th September 2010 by rights holder and disability organisations, and is a laudable and hopefully worthwhile initiative.

The MOU has the potential to improve voluntary licensing schemes and the accessibility of technology. However, it does not cover the exchange of accessible books between EU and non-EU countries. This means for example that print disabled people in the UK will not benefit from the large numbers of accessible books in the USA as a result of the MOU, nor will Spain be able to send its accessible catalogue of books to Latin America under the agreement.

The MOU also relies on cooperation with rights holders. The law must ensure a safety net for the many instances where such cooperation is not provided. The MOU cannot therefore be used as a reason for refusing to support a binding international legal solution to the “book famine”.

The World Blind Union has drafted a proposal for a World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) treaty which can tackle this problem. That proposal was tabled at WIPO by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay in May 2009. However, the EU opposed it.

At WIPO in June 2010 the EU proposed a more limited and non-binding voluntary instrument, which met with no approval from the many disabled people’s NGOs as they considered it as an ineffective tool for ending “book famine”.

We call upon the European Commission and EU Member States to live up to their responsibilities under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The way to do this is to work actively and positively with other WIPO Member States to agree a binding legal norm, based on the treaty proposal drafted by the World Blind Union and tabled at WIPO in 2009.

This letter is sponsored by the following MEPs:

Thijs Berman (Netherlands, S&D)
Ska Keller (Germany, Green)
Dr Dieter Koch (Germany, EPP)
Ádám Kósa (Hungary, EPP)
Liz Lynne (UK, ALDE)
Elisabeth Schroedter (Germany, Green)
Catherine Stihler (UK, S&D)
Francisco Sosa Wagner (Spain, Non-attached)