WIPO copyright treaty for blind kept on hold

There were a few anxious faces in WIPO, Geneva (and elsewhere) yesterday, as a US-Canada-EU lobby tried to block a copyright treaty proposal protecting the rights of people with disabilities to access digital material. Discussions were left hanging, though, and will continue in the next edition of the Standing Commitee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), tentatively scheduled for Nov 30-Dec 4 2009. The Treaty, which can be accessed here, was introducted by the World Blind Union, and tabled by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay.

Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International was tracking the discussions live, and blogged for Huffington Post, detailing the contents of the treaty:
“The treaty seeks to allow the cross-border import and export of digital copies of books and other copyrighted works in formats that are accessible to persons who are blind, visually impaired, dyslexic or have other reading disabilities, using special devices that present text as refreshable braille, computer generated text to speech, or large type. These works, which are expensive to make, are typically created under national exceptions to copyright law that are specifically written to benefit persons with disabilities.”

The impetus for such a treaty comes lies in the limited number of accessible works for such disabled persons, compared to the tomes available to “sighted” persons. This is compounded by the limited access to texts in non-English languages. The opposition from the US and others is purportedly because of internal lobbying from publishers whose agenda is to expand rights for copyright owners.

However, this debate is not particularly new, and indeed has its origins in a 1982 WIPO and UNESCO Working Group on Access by the Visually and Auditory Handicapped to Material Reproducing Works Produced by Copyright. As Jamie Love tells us in the KEI blog, “the debate in 1982 was similar in many respects to the debate today, with attention to issues such as remuneration or non-remunerative exceptions, whether or not exceptions should be avoided in favor of private negotiations with copyright owners, and how to prevent the accessible works being used by members of the general public.” The parties were near identical on either side of the table. The main difference lay in the present focus on the cross-border transport of works, which was absent in 1982.

Although India does not seem to have been an active participant on this occasion, the timing of this discussion is nevertheless appropriate, for it coincides with the launch of – the world’s largest user-generated library of books accessible by the visually-impaired. (There’s a screen-grab on the left). The web-resource is a joint initiative of the Centre for Internet and Society and Inclusive Planet, whom you can read more about here. It may be an unrelated link in the sense that the digital material presently available is all out of copyright, and the website has a clear take-down policy here. But it doesn’t deny the fact that this is an amazing and much-needed initiative, and promises a lot. If mainstream publishers are enterprising enough, they would actually consider sponsoring uploads. Some of you may find that a tad too fanciful.

I know I sound really old when I say this, but I still remember the days when, as college volunteers, students spent time at neighbourhood schools for the visually impaired or at university, to read out or even record (on analog tapes) entire books (fiction/reference) for students to access. I’m sure this student volunteer support system won’t die out immediately in some parts of the world, but it’s great to see digital technology and inclusiveness make a rare appearance on the same page.


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  1. AvatarAnonymous

    A timely discussion this. If the Treaty does come into being, it will perhaps be the first of its kind specifically catering to the rights of users of IP protected material. Objections raised are much on expected lines.
    The uniqueness of the disability movement lies in its stress on access- beginning with claims regarding access to the built in environment, and now asking for access to information and communications technology. The disability seeks to tackle unfavourable attitudinal, societal and architectural barriers, and the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities last year signifies that its assertions and demands are finally being recognized by the law at the international level. In fact, this Convention is the first major international human rights Treaty of the twenty first century. What is important in all this is that the UNCRPD, as is clear from its Preamble, treats accessibility as an entitlements issue.
    Article 9 obliges States Parties to “take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas.” These measures which include identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility, are to apply among other things, to information, communications and other services, including electronic services and emergency services (see Article 9(1)). It also binds States Parties to take appropriate measures to develop, promulgate and monitor the implementation of minimum standards and guidelines for the accessibility of facilities and services open or provided to the public, ensure that private entities that offer facilities and services which are open or provided to the public take into account all aspects of accessibility for persons with disabilities, provide training for stakeholders on accessibility issues facing persons with disabilities, promote other appropriate forms of assistance and support to persons with disabilities to ensure their access to information, promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet and promote the design, development, production and distribution of accessible information and communications technologies and systems at an early stage, so that these technologies and systems become accessible at minimum cost (See Article 9(2).).
    India was one of the more active participants in the Disability Convention making process. But we haven’t tinkered with our domestic laws even slightly to bring them in line with our commitments towards the Convention. The ‘fair dealing’ Clause of the Copyright Act is yet to incorporate a provision making copyrighted material available to persons with disabilities in accessible formats.
    And the question is not merely about literature alone. Technology has made rapid strides, but most persons with disabilities remain unaffected. It is not that technology does not exist. Yes we do have wonderful screen reading softwares, portable readers and other extremely useful assistive devices, but they are far too expensive for a marginalized group with limited means in a developing economy. One can possibly draw a parallel from the pharmaceutical sector and the entire right to health debate which has been extensively blogged before. Technological developments based on a temporary monopoly incentive will tend to cater to market demands rather than the pressing needs of the vast multitude. Another case for the State stepping in on a large scale?



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