Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Breakthrough on Global Access at WIPO in Geneva!

There has been a major breakthrough recently on international copyright negotiations in Geneva around improved access for people who have print disabilities. Through negotiations, four competing proposals have been merged into a single document supported in June by the Latin Americans (led by Brazil), the U.S., the European Union and others.

Here are some questions and answers I've prepared on this topic, based on my recent trip to Geneva to attend the first week of discussions on the issue.

1. Question: What are the two key points of the document?

• Countries should provide for a copyright exception in their national laws to allow nonprofit organizations serving people with disabilities to make accessible versions of inaccessible books and other content
• Import and export of such accessible materials shall be permitted

2. Question: Why is this a good idea?

Answer: A copyright exception makes it much easier for people with print disabilities to get access to the materials they need for education, employment and social inclusion. The United States enacted such a copyright exception (the “Chafee Amendment,” Section 121 of Title 17 of the United States Code), and as a result Americans with print disabilities have the best and most extensive collections of accessible books in the world. In addition, a copyright exception is a crucial mechanism for countries to live up to several of their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which many countries have signed and ratified).

3. Question: How would this help Americans with print disabilities?

Answer: Many Americans want to access materials from other countries, both in English and many other languages, for education, employment and cultural reasons. Allowing import of accessible materials from other countries would improve access for Americans with print disabilities. In addition, the two national organizations of blind people both just passed formal resolutions in favor of the treaty proposal.

4. Question: How would this help people with print disabilities globally?

Answer: People with print disabilities, especially in the developing world, lack fundamental access to content available to other people. This places them at a tremendous disadvantage in having equal opportunity, especially in the areas of education and employment. If these proposed provisions took effect, it would be easier for communities of people with disabilities to build their own accessible collections inside their own countries. In addition, countries with linguistic links to richer countries (i.e., the U.S., UK, France, Spain) would have access to crucially important cultural, vocational and educational materials.

5. Question: How does the draft document define print disability?

Answer: The current draft defines print disability in functional terms. For example, a person who “is unable to read printed works to substantially the same degree as a person without an impairment or disability.”

6. Question: What’s the big open issue remaining?

Answer: The draft document is structured so that it can be put forward either as a recommendation or a draft treaty. The advocates for people with disabilities strongly favor a treaty. They note that whenever industry wants intellectual property action globally, they only want a treaty: why should people with disabilities settle for a softer alternative? The European Union (especially France) does not want a treaty, and is supported in this by the United States. A two-step process has been proposed (recommendation followed by treaty), but the advocates have not seriously engaged in this option.

7. Question: Why do publishers and intellectual property industries object to a treaty?

Answer: It’s hard for the publishers to object to the idea of people with disabilities having accessible materials. Many authors and publishers have long voluntarily supported such accessibility through permissions agreements. However, publishers and related industries are generally against copyright limitations and exceptions, as part of a general effort to increase their control over intellectual property and business models and constrain technological innovation that threatens that control. The movie and recording industries have made the most negative statements about the treaty: [it would] “begin to dismantle the existing global treaty structure of copyright law, through the adoption of an international instrument at odds with existing, longstanding and well-settled norms.” But, they love anything that strengthens intellectual property regulations, of course.

8. Question: Why should the U.S. Government support this effort?

Answer: The United States under the current administration has made a laudable statement of support for accessibility for people with disabilities, and the need to strike a balance between the interest of publishers and the community of persons with disabilities. One key point: it’s been the law of the land in the U.S. for more than 15 years, and it’s worked great! If it’s good enough for the U.S., as one of the leading lights in both intellectual property regulation and inclusion of people with people with disabilities, it should be good enough for the rest of the world!


The goal is pretty clear: insuring that every person on the planet with a serious print disability has access to the books and other printed material that they need to get an education, make a living and be included in society. It is abundantly clear that the great majority of people in the world who cannot pick up a book and read it effectively are at a terrific disadvantage in society. This effort at WIPO, if successful, should change this sorry state of affairs!

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