Will the EU and USA join the rest of the world and finally agree a binding book treaty for blind people this November?


Visitors to this site will know that the World Blind Union has campaigned for some years now at the World Intellectual Property Organisation, WIPO, for the removal of copyright barriers which prevent blind, partially sighted, dyslexic and other “reading disabled” people from accessing books.


This is vital because reading disabled people face a “book famine” in which some 95% of books published in rich countries and 99% in poorer countries are never converted into accessible formats such as audio, large print or braille.


Currently, outdated copyright law means that in two thirds of the world’s countries, organisations working to provide accessible books cannot do so unless publishers give them permission. Such authorisation is often slow in coming or does not come at all.


In view of these difficulties and the legitimate need to ensure that blind people can access books that publishers have not published in accessible formats, countries with a more enlightened copyright policy have implemented exceptions to their national copyright law. These allow blind people and organisations working on their behalf to legally make their own accessible copies of books, even where publishers have not given their express authorisation.


However, even in those countries which have a “copyright exception”, copyright law does not allow an accessible book or digital book file to be made available in another country with the same language. This means that, for example, a blind person’s organisation in the UK cannot benefit from tens of thousands of books in English made accessible thanks to the USA’s copyright exception. It means that Spanish blind organisation ONCE cannot share its collection of over a hundred thousand accessible books with the many Latin American countries that speak Spanish yet have few accessible books themselves. Using even current infrastructure and systems, these books could travel between these countries tomorrow if copyright law allowed it.


The WIPO copyright negotiating committee, “SCCR”, meets from 21st November to 2nd December 2011. It will examine a draft of a law for access to books for reading disabled people, which could end the legal problems outlined above. A group of eleven countries from different continents put the document together in June this year, and WBU feels it is a good basis for a binding WIPO treaty.


Sadly, until now, the EU and USA have opposed a binding WIPO treaty for reading disabled people.


It is usual for WIPO to protect the rights of authors, publishers and the industry they belong to with binding treaties. This summer, for instance, WIPO Member States agreed to finalise a binding treaty to protect the rights of audiovisual performers. Yet the EU and USA in particular have been pushing for a “WIPO Recommendation” rather than a treaty, which would not be legally binding and would not therefore be taken seriously. Some countries at WIPO suggest such a “Recommendation” could be the first in a “two-step” process, and that at some as yet undefined second stage, though some as yet undefined process, we could have our binding treaty after all.


There are three main reasons why WBU seeks a binding treaty now and rejects a “Recommendation”, namely:


1. A “Recommendation” would add years of delay and cost, which neither blind people nor their organisations can afford.


We have already campaigned for years for a proper law on this issue, and it is costly and time-consuming to travel to Geneva and meet decision-makers in our respective countries. More importantly, such delays continue a situation in which reading disabled people have to do without books they might otherwise have read. A study just released by Yale University shows that in this context of human rights and copyright, soft law would do more harm than good and a binding treaty is needed. See link here:


http://www.law.yale.edu/intellectuallife/6564.htm (External link)



2. If you want to do a job, do it properly and fully first time round.


Publishers and authors know that the law that best protects their interests in the international arena is a treaty. That is why they do not waste their time and effort calling for non-binding “Recommendations” when lobbying to enforce copyright protection. This same principle applies to a law removing copyright barriers which prevent access to books for blind people.


3. Disabled people are not second class people, and should not have their rights protected by second class law.


WBU urges anyone whose inclination is not to believe this statement to consult the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Articles 21 and 30 of the former, and Article 19 of the latter, are particularly relevant to concerns over access to information and freedom of expression.)


WBU will have a team of delegates from around the world at the WIPO SCCR meeting this November. Governments from around the world will come to WIPO knowing that they have an opportunity to agree a landmark law to improve reading disabled people’s access to books. WBU urges them to seize that opportunity and to help end the book famine. We urge them to agree a binding WIPO treaty, this November, to allow us to start a new chapter in the lives of disabled people from around the world.

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