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Right to read for the print impaired and copyright challenges

Posted by Radha Rao at Nov 13, 2009 07:45 AM |
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The National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (NIVH), Daisy Forum of India (DFI) and Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) together organised an event titled “Right to read for the print impaired and copyright challenges” on behalf of the Visually Impaired (VIP) community of India in New Delhi on 11th November.

The "Right to read for the print impaired and copyright challenges" event was held in honour of the visit of the Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to India. The main agenda of the meeting was to draw attention to the pressing problems faced by the print impaired community in developing countries such as India.

The meeting began with a welcome address and background to the meeting given by Nirmita. This was followed by two presentations by Dr.Sam Taraporewala from XRCVC and Ms.Shalini Khanna representing NAB India. The focus of these presentations was to brief the guests from the WIPO as well as the representatives from different stakeholder groups in the audience about the present position in India with regard to the availability of books in accessible formats for the visually impaired and the severe barrier posed by the Indian Copyright Act 1957 which impacted the lives of millions of print impaired persons on an everyday basis. These presentations highlighted the fact that barely half a percent of books were made available in different accessible formats in India and that these were mostly study materials for school children. Most of these were also conversions obtained without the permission of copyright holders and organisations in India were stressed in terms of finances and infrastructural support to cater to the needs of a large number of blind persons in India. As a result of this, blind persons have limited or no access to information and cultural content in accessible formats and even the few materials which are available on the internet are not necessarily to persons using screen readers. Consequently persons with print impairments are excluded from participating in the cultural, social and economic life of the country and from becoming creative and productive members of society.

Print Access - Presentation


This was followed by two presentations from members of the publishers’ community, namely Mr.Vivek Mehra, MD and CEO of Sage India and Mr.Manish Arora, Chairman of the Copyright Committee of the Federation of Publishers and Booksellers Association Of India. Both the speakers expressed their willingness to provide books to persons with print impairments, provided that their concerns of leakage and piracy could be adequately addressed. Earlier in a smaller meeting before the event, Mr.Manas Saikia, MD of Cambridge University Press India Pvt Ltd, had made a similar statement and had also announced that CUP India had finally worked out a format for a contract which would be mutually acceptable to both publishers as well as the community and that CUP would be using this contract globally in all countries. He suggested that this contract could be used as a basis by all publishing houses to enter into agreements with the community to facilitate equitable access to blind persons in India.

After this, Dr.Francis Gurry (DG) briefed the audience about the Treaty for the Blind, visually impaired and other reading disabled which is presently tabled before the WIPO by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay and the establishment of a stake holders platform as a parallel process to provide a speedy and feasible solution to both the blindness and publisher communities, until such a time that a consensus was reached and an internationally binding agreement in the form of a treaty was arrived at. He expressed a desire to know about the problems being faced by the VIP community in India and to offer assistance from WIPO in any manner which may help to tackle the problems in an interim manner. Some of the ways in which help was solicited was in the manner of financial aid to fund capacity building and other projects and a recommendation was made that WIPO should consider India as a possible location for the pilot project of trusted intermediary soon to be undertaken. It was stressed by the community that India was home to nearly 70 million print impaired persons, had the institutional infrastructure to carry such a project through and could act as a resource to other developing countries.

The community also appraised the DG of an attempt to create a stake holders platform at a national level, which complemented the efforts being undertaken at the international level and asked that India should be kept informed of all developments which took place on this issue in WIPO. The DG in his opening remarks observed that India seemed to be a country which was extremely good at making “frugal innovations” and cited the Nano car as one of many examples. He expressed his belief that India could go a long way in creating cost effective and workable technology solutions for publishers and that it would certainly be worth exploring for WIPO to fund such projects in India.

The VIP community in India had prepared a submission document to the WIPO on the concerns and needs of India in this matter, which was handed over to the DG by Mr.Dipendra Manocha.

The meeting concluded with a Q&A session facilitated by Ambassador Swashpawan Singh (Special advisor to the DG on the VIP issue) and a vote of Thanks by Ms.Anuradha Mohit.

Background to the event

The Right to read is a fundamental human right for all persons in the Information age.

The ability to seek, receive and impart information and ideas is vital to ensuring that all persons are able to participate productively in the cultural, scientific and economic life of the society.

However, despite the undisputed recognition of the importance of this right by countries across the globe, persons who are unable to access printed materials, whether due to a visual, physical or cognitive disability, continue to be starved of knowledge and information which is available to the general public.

For persons who cannot read print, information has to be converted into formats such as Braille, large print, audio, electronic and other formats which they can access using assistive technologies. The World Blind Union estimates that barely 5% of books which get published in developed countries get converted into accessible formats. In developing countries such as India this estimate gets reduced even further to a bare 0.5%. This results in reduced educational and employment opportunities for the nearly 70 million print impaired persons in India, since the lack of information and public communication material severely restricts their socio-cultural involvement. To add to this, materials which are available in electronic formats on web sites are also very often inaccessible due to the failure of web designers and developers to adhere to principles of universal access while creating web sites and content on web sites.

The Copyright laws of countries are responsible for determining whether such conversions for the benefit of visually impaired persons are possible without seeking permissions from copyright holders. Under the Indian Copyright Act 1957, there is no provision under the fair dealing clause which expressly permits conversions into accessible formats for persons who cannot read print. Consequently it is illegal for these persons to scan a book into a computer and read it using a screen reader and to share the same with other blind persons. In effect, this is a curtailment of their fundamental right to read, since they cannot read books in their original printed form and have to necessarily convert them into other formats.  While there are nearly 124 countries which have restrictive copyright laws like India which do not make provisions for conversion by the blind, there are about 54 countries including both developed and developing countries which have enabled the necessary legal framework for persons with print impairments to convert and read books. Blind persons in these countries, in addition to converting books for their own use within their country, can also share books with each other. Hence libraries for the blind in these countries constantly circulate materials in accessible formats amongst themselves. Blind persons living in countries like India on the other hand, are unable to undertake conversion or take advantage of already available accessible materials in other countries.

Recognising that this problem needs to be addressed urgently once and for all and that such a solution should come at an international level, the World Blind Union in November 2008, proposed a Treaty before the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) titled “the Treaty for the Blind, visually impaired and other reading disabled persons”, which sought to harmonise exceptions and limitations for the visually impaired in the copyright laws of countries across the world so that there could be a free and unimpeded exchange of knowledge across borders. This Treaty is currently proposed by three Latin American Countries- Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay and is to be discussed at the next meeting of the SCCR in December. At the same time, stakeholders in the treaty (disability organizations and publisher groups) are also trying to address this issue through a stakeholders platform constituted especially for this purpose.

In the light of the ever growing magnitude of this problem in India and the implications that such an international Treaty could have for a country like India, urgent action is required at two levels:

  • We need to amend the Indian Copyright Act 1957 and incorporate the necessary flexibilities required for print impaired persons to undertake and share accessible books- this will serve to bring the Act in line with the provisions of the Indian Constitution and the UNCRPD (United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities) to which we are a signatory;
  • India should support the Treaty efforts at the WIPO to harmonise copyright laws at a global level.

The Visually Impaired Community (VIP Community) of India has been fighting this battle for many years and yet blind children are being deprived everyday of vital information which would enable them to pursue education and employment. The community has recently launched a nation wide Right to Read (R2R) Campaign to raise awareness on this issue amongst the public and policy makers.

The Present Event:

The Director General of the WIPO Mr.Francis Gurry, visited India between 11th-13th November , and kindly consented to attend a special event titled, The Right to Read for persons with print impairment and Copyright Challenges” being organized by the VIP community in India in his honour. This meeting intended to serve as a platform for the community to express its views on the Treaty negotiations at the WIPO and to brief the Director General about the efforts being undertaken at the national level to tackle this problem. Attendees were members from different stakeholder communities such as disability organizations, publishers and the government and they all had an opportunity to present their points of view.

Agenda of the seminar on Right to Read and copy right challenges

Date: 11th  November
Time: 5:00  P.M.
Duration: One Hour
Venue: Sheraton New Delhi Hotel, District Centre, Saket, New Delhi 110017

  • Welcome and background of the meeting by Ms.Nirmita Narasimhan (Programme Manager, Centre for Internet and Society)
  • Challenges in reading books for persons with blindness or low vision by Mr. K. Ramakrishna (General Secretary, National Association for the Blind)
  • Brief about the copyright challenges to the print impaired community in India By Dr. Sam Taraporevala – Chairman Copy Right and Publisher Relationship Committee, DAISY Forum of India
  • Publisher’s perspective by Mr. Vivek Mehra (MD/CEO, Sage India)
  • Presentation from the Federation of Publishers’ & Booksellers’ Associations in India (Chair Legal Committee, FPBAI)
  • Address by the Director General- WIPO
  • Introduction to and presentation of the submission document to the DG by Mr.Dipendra Manocha
  • Questions and Comments from the Deligates- facilitated byAmbassador Swashpawan Singh
  • Vote of Thanks by Ms. Anuradha Mohit (Director, National Institute for Visually Handicapped, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Govt. of India)
  • Informal Interaction over tea/coffee.


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