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WIPO Proposals Would Open Cross-Border Access To Materials For Print Disabled

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 02, 2011 11:56 AM
The print disabled feel that the possible UN recommendations being negotiated upon may come up short, reports Kaitlin Mara in this article.

Negotiators trying to find a solution for the world’s print disabled, who have said copyright law is limiting their access to an already meagre supply of reading material in usable formats, began discussing a possible UN recommendation this week. But the print disabled and their strongest supporters have said such a recommendation – which would not be legally binding – would fall short of meeting their needs.

The critical issue is the ability to trade accessibly formatted books across country borders, which is currently restricted by copyright law. The World Blind Union drafted a treaty text, which was submitted a year ago to the World Intellectual Property Organization by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay.

The United States this week submitted draft proposal for a consensus instrument [pdf] to WIPO, where these discussions are being held. This instrument has a list of recommendations for governments on national laws to aid the import and export of accessible books.

The US delegation told Intellectual Property Watch that their consensus instrument was intended to be a “faster” solution, and is not mutually exclusive with – and indeed could be a step towards – the treaty that has been called for.

At the last meeting of the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights in December 2009, some delegations – notably the European Union – refused to discuss a possible treaty, saying more facts were needed (IPW, WIPO, 22 December 2009).

At the December meeting, it was decided to hold an open consultation on the issues – the 27 May meeting – before the next SCCR meeting, scheduled for 21-24 June. Also, on 28 May, WIPO is discussing aspects of a proposed treaty to protect audiovisual performances.

But the governments behind the treaty proposal and civil society representatives of the print-disabled community expressed their doubts about the US’s intermediary solution.

“Our initial reaction… is that [the US proposal] falls short of our objectives, at least in a vital element – the format – for it is not a legally binding instrument,” Brazil, on behalf of these countries, said in a statement, available here Statement Brazil VIP [doc]. They added they needed more time to fully analyse it.

The US proposal fails in several ways, Brazil said. Among them: it does not create a legal obligation for countries to make exceptions, meaning if either an exporting or importing country lacks an exception, the transfer cannot be made; it discriminates against different kinds of media and does not seem to cover works shared online, it does not address the potential need to circumvent technological protection measures or contractual restrictions on needed exceptions, and doesn’t express the specific needs of developing countries.

“This is far from what we need,” Chris Friend, chair of the World Blind Union Global Right to Read Campaign told Intellectual Property Watch, saying it would just lead to “more procrastination” rather than more speed.

Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Paraguay also submitted this week a proposed timetable, available here[pdf], for the adoption of a treaty for the visually-impaired that would see its completion in the spring of 2012. 

If speed is desired, members might support this timetable proposal, said Dan Pescod, vice chair of the Right to Read Campaign.

Voluntary processes are unacceptable, said Jace Nair, the National Executive Director of the South African National Council for the Blind. “We have been depending on a voluntary process from rights holders for decades… it hasn’t helped.”

Pescod added that the World Blind Union respects the needs of rights holders and the copyright system, but added a “similar level of seriousness” is needed “to address this issue.” If rights holder’s needs are immediately moved to a treaty, why when it comes to disabled people’s needs are we not able to talk about the same thing, he asked. There is not an ACTA-style [Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement] recommendation; it is a treaty, he said.

But some were pleased the US proposal. “We welcome the [United States] recommendation,” said Jens Bammel of the International Publishers Association in a later interview with Intellectual Property Watch, adding that there had not yet been a chance to digest it in detail.

The element of the US proposal that has the “greatest potential” to resolve the issue, Bammel said, is that it “recognises the value of trusted intermediaries.” These intermediaries can bring together rights holders and the visually impaired to find practical solutions on all issues of access to literary content, “not just the tiny sliver that is copyright.” Other issues include technical and practical matters, for example figuring out what accessible works already exist or creating a network to transfer files from one place to another.

Background to the Issue

The organisations that translate books into accessible formats are often under-funded nonprofits serving in general the needs of the blind.according to? As a result, the budget that can be allocated to translating books is small, and of particular concern in developing countries or in cases where there is a group of print-disabled people that speak a language uncommon in their country.

This is a particular problem for developing countries, where about 80 percent of the print disabled live, Nirmita Narasimhan, programme manager of the Centre for Internet and Society in India, said at a press conference Wednesday.

Any formatting that takes place in India is done by nonprofits with no support of the government, she said. And these nonprofits “spend a lot of time recreating work done globally and nationally” and often have to push conversion activities to a lower priority because they also need to work on food or shelter for the visually impaired. There are approximately 100,000 books printed in India every year, she added, but barely 600-700 of these are in accessible formats.

High level texts are particularly hard to find, said Narasimhan, who is a lawyer. Studying in law school often meant having a family member read to her when books were unavailable in the right formats.

An example that illustrates the problem, said Chris Friend of the World Blind Union, is a book in the popular children’s series Harry Potter. It had to be re-engineered in five different English Braille editions and eight different English audio versions around the world, because sharing across borders was not permitted. These cost about US$ 5,000 a piece. The situation becomes even more difficult with communities in a linguistic minority in a country – for example Hindi communities residing in Canada.

This is also a matter of human rights, argued several of the civil society groups representing the print disabled, citing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Article 30, which requires states “to ensure that laws protecting intellectual property rights do not constitute an unreasonable or discriminatory barrier to access by persons with disabilities to cultural materials.”

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