Big Meeting on the Treaty this Week!

This week in Geneva is a major meeting on the path to the expected Diplomatic Conference on the Treaty for the Visually Impaired. The goal of the Treaty is to make a copyright exception for the blind and other people with disabilities that stop them from reading print, and to make import and export of accessible content legal. As the operators of Bookshare in the USA, which was made possible through a great exception in our copyright law here, we would love to make all of our books available to people with qualifying disabilities around the world.

We expect that many of the big issues with the current text will get ironed out this week. After the last WIPO session in November, the World Blind Union convened a group of experts to review the current Treaty draft and make recommendations to the WBU on the most important issues for WBU to work on in this next session. I wrote a post at the time
with the detailed suggestions from the expert group about the text of the draft. This post is my own personal take on those expert recommendations.

My core point: Don’t put up bureaucratic barriers to access. 

The biggest challenge for access is that it’s expensive. It’s expensive to make braille books. It’s expensive to adapt textbooks to be accessible. This is why the making of accessible books is a classic example of market failure: if publishers could make a lot of money selling braille, large print, audio, and fully accessible textbooks, we wouldn’t need a copyright exception. It’s why the great majority of accessibility work is done by volunteers, charities, and with government support.

Bureaucratic barriers to utilizing a copyright exception, as proposed by some publishers, makes the cost even greater. For example, one proposed change to the Treaty draft would make it the responsibility of an exporting library to need to know details about the publishing status of a book in another country before we could fill a request from a bona fide person with a print disability from that country. The biggest demand for this Treaty is to meet the needs of people in developing countries, where people with disabilities tend to be among the poorest of the poor, and where the publishing infrastructure is often nonexistent!

For example, we run Bookshare in the U.S. under a terrific exception to copyright that makes it possible for a nonprofit like ours to simply provide accessible books to people with disabilities. Other than confirming that the people we’re serving have qualifying disabilities, we can simply go and get the books they need and convert them into accessible formats. So, in the U.S., we don’t have these kinds of barriers, and we’re doing a great job of getting people the books they need. The goal of the Treaty is to provide access to the great accessible libraries of wealthier countries, as well as make it legally possible to make local content accessible in each country. If you make it expensive and time consuming to help people with disabilities in other countries, with greater barriers to access than we have in our home countries, most libraries from rich countries won’t bother. And that’s the status quo today: very few libraries bother with the effort to request permissions to export the books they already have, meaning duplication of effort in the wealthier countries on the most in-demand books, and almost nothing available for the developing countries. 

For what am I advocating? 

Several key points under the avoidance of bureaucracy banner:
  • The goal of the Treaty is to make it easy to make books accessible. The base draft accomplishes that, and mirrors the effective exception in the U.S. Don’t load the Treaty up on with arcane processes that waste scarce funding for no benefit. If our Bookshare team is trying to help a blind student in India get a book she needs for university, make it easy for us to do that. 
  • Make it possible for people with disabilities to obtain the books they need from wherever they can find them. The Treaty should allow an individual person with a disability to import the book they need directly. The ability of that Indian blind student shouldn’t depend on whether she can get her university or a local blindness charity to do it for her. 
  • Rely on national law in each country to qualify the nonprofits that can use these exceptions to help people with disabilities. Don’t create a global Swiss registry of nonprofit organizations qualified to use exceptions. That’s so 20th Century (or 19th?)! 

In the United States, the battle for equal access has moved beyond access to library services under a copyright exception to a battle for the ability to buy an accessible ebook on the same terms as people without disabilities. But even as we work for fully equal access, we need the safety net of a copyright exception for libraries to ensure that the civil right of access to information isn’t denied on the whim of a publisher, or even the publisher’s businesslike calculation that they won’t make enough money to justify selling their books to people with disabilities. 


The base Treaty draft doesn’t have these bureaucratic provisions: if we can get the base Treaty, as is, without them, with copyright exceptions that work like the copyright exception that has proven so effective in the United States, we will be successful in ending the book famine for people with disabilities that stop them from reading standard print books!

A Postscript 

Although the advocates for people with disabilities are excited about making big progress this week, our excitement is tempered by the unexpected and sudden loss of one of the foremost advocates for the Treaty, Rahul Cherian of India. I saw Rahul hard at work on the original drafting team for the treaty, and he had been one of the most dedicated advocates for assuring access to information for people with print disabilities. I understand from our peers in India that he was also essential in the passing of India’s recent copyright exception. Jamie Love pulled together a playlist of videos of Rahul at WIPO events: the one where he was joyfully trying out a scooter for the first time is indelibly imprinted on me. We’ll all miss his presence as we approach the finishing line on the Treaty. An effective Treaty would be the most appropriate memorial I could imagine for Rahul Cherian.


Jim Fruchterman said…
A brief update after hearing from the advocates in Geneva. Apparently, the most amount of energy was spent on the arcane topic of the "three steps test." According to the reports I have, the outcome on this could either be benign and similar to past treaties that have referred to this, or it could be a gigantic hassle for people hoping to benefit from the treaty. Europe has been pushing this point hard (with US support apparently) and the developing countries (especially African) and IP activists are really unhappy. The World Blind Union is mostly stuck in the middle: its goal is that the Treaty not get neutered through some arcane legal point.
Apparently there will be more work on the Treaty before Morocco.

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