Guest Post: A Step Forward and a Step Back for the Print Disabled

We are happy to bring our readers our first guest post entry from our SpicyIP Fellowship applicants.
Snigdha Roy, a 3rd year student from Gujarat National Law University, discusses some of the problems that modern copyright law has presented to the print disabled. She notes the mixed success of efforts with welcome new Amendments in India’s Copyright law on one hand and the failure of the International Treaty of the Blind to make any headway on the other hand.


In the world, as we know it, there is no end to knowledge and the resources are numerous. However for a class of people known as the “print disabled,” access to the otherwise abundant resource, is a luxury. The term “print disabled” covers people who cannot read due to reasons of blindness and other impairments including dyslexia, autism, learning disabilities, etc and account for more than 11% of the population in India.

Much has been said about the abhorable deficiency of books in accessible format as pointed by Ms. Shampa Sengupta of Sruti Disabled Rights Centre when she said here that, “Even the National Library does not have any Braille or audio books. Authorities argue that the number of such special books is too less to create full-fledged sections.” Mr. Amiyo Biswas of Blind Persons’ Association, one of the three Braille publishers in the Kolkata pointed out here that “as a humanitarian gesture, the Copyright Act of 1957 should be relaxed for books meant for the differently-abled”.  

In the year 2009 around 79 organisations working nationwide for the welfare of the visually impaired had submitted a document title, “Right to read for the print impaired and copyright challenges” to the Director General, WIPO from the Visually Impaired (“VIP”) Community of India available here. They dedicated the submission to the predicament faced by the print impaired. Highlighting the inadequacy of exceptions in the Indian Copyright Act 1957 for them, they brought forward the facts and figures stating that less than 1% of visually impaired people have adequate access to printed matter and only around 0.5% of all published books in India get converted into accessible formats. The basic demand was consideration of a treaty for the blind.

The welcomed additions to the Copyright Act, and the new developments in the front of the treaty for the blind and disabled marks the year 2012 as a year of hope and despair for the print impaired.

The Copyright (Amendment) Act 2012 which was unanimously passed by the Lok Sabha got its final assent from the President of India on 7th June 2012. 

The Act adds two new provisions to the existing Copyright Act, 1957 which will facilitate the conversion of books to accessible format. The most awaited inclusion of Section 52(1)(zb) provides some respite to activists and right holders alike. Before the Section 52(1)(zb), the owner of the copyright had the exclusive right to make copies, adapt, communicate to public work etc. Therefore, any conversion of a book into accessible formats could be undertaken only by the copyright holder or with his sole permission. However reasons like lack of profitability, apprehension of leakage etc deterred them from converting their work into accessible formats. But now adaptation, reproduction, issue of copies or communication to the public of any work in accessible format finds place under acts not infringing copyrights. Hence any conversion, adaptation etc for any person or any organization working for the benefit of the disabled and on a non-profit basis is not an infringement of anybody’s copyright. Further the apprehensions which the original draft of this provision, as made available in 2006, had instigated have also been put to rest since the provision allows conversion of books to any accessible format and does not restrict the relaxation to “specialized formats designed for persons with disabilities”.  

The Act does not stop there. The new Sect 31 B provides additional opportunities in case Section 52(1)(zb) does not apply. Under this section any person working for the benefit of the persons with disabilities on a profit basis or for business can apply for compulsory license to the Copyright Board for the conversion and distribution of books in any accessible format. The full text of the Copyright (Amendment) Act 2012 is available here.

Coming to the Treaty for the Blind, lot of hope has been associated with the treaty and it has drawn the attention of the world of intellectual property rights. After EU declared its support to the treaty, US is the only major country left on the opposition side. However the round of negotiations on exceptions and limitations to the treaty for the blind persons with printing disabilities met a dismal conclusion on 23rd November 2012. No consensus was met on some of the major contentious issues like export of adapted work across border etc and people with hearing disabilities were written of the draft. All though draft text of an international instrument (available here) was adopted by the Committee but many of the important decisions were deferred to an extraordinary session called for in December 2012.

Christopher Friend of the WBU, voicing concerns in closing remarks about the “enormous amount” of text to be cleaned up and finished before the extraordinary General Assembly in December, as reported here said that “We are not after a trophy treaty,” but want to put books and information in the hands of visually impaired persons and persons with print disabilities in the formats that are needed.

After a decade long fight a step has been taken to boost the accessibility of literary work to the print disabled but is doesn’t end here, as appealed by Stevie Wonder, US singer-writer, We must declare a state of emergency, and end the information deprivation that continues to keep the visually impaired in the dark.


  1. AvatarAnonymous

    I could see the obvious ‘step forward’ in the recently added amendments to the Indian CR Act. But where is the ‘Step Back’. Certainly, one cannot gauge the efforts being made (but not yet concluded) at international level as ‘step back’. Is there any already existing right which has been taken away by this amendment or for that matter anything which the organizations (working for blinds) were asking for which has not been addressed to or provided by the amendment? If so, I could not find its reference in the post, so as to fit the title selected by you for this post. Let the author reply and not the moderator.

  2. AvatarSnigdha

    Hi see when I refer to the rights of the print disabled I am not really segregating between the ones derived from Indian Laws and one bestowed on them internationally. There is no doubt that the amendments made to the copyright act come as an answer to the decade long demands of the print disabled and the activists. But a setback on the road to the treaty is a setback for the same group of people who benefit from the amended copyright act. There were high expectations from the 25th session of the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights which took place from 19-23 November. However it met with a dismal end since not much progress was done during the meeting and they couldn’t declare the date for the final negotiation. Rather, WIPO called for an extraordinary meeting which wasn’t expected to do much. Had I written the blog a week later I would have definitely titled it something different like maybe “A year of hopes for the Print Disabled” in light of the meeting in Morocco in June, which was to declared by the WIPO extraordinary assembly’s on 18th December 2012, to finalize a treaty. If a step forward means new rights, the opposite doesn’t necessarily entail to rights taken away. If a much required treaty meets roadblocks after 4 years of negotiation, then it is a step back for me.


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