Poisoning the Treaty for the Blind

The Obama Administration is turning its back on people with disabilities--and I'm outraged. I'm an engineer and social entrepreneur, trying to make the world a better place for people with disabilities, and I rarely step into the role of vocal advocate. But when you see behavior that is so unjust, you just have to speak out against it. Here is what is happening.

For years, international negotiations have been moving forward on what many have come to know as the "Treaty for the Blind." The goal of the treaty is to make it possible for people who are blind, or have other print disabilities, to get access to the books they need for education, employment and inclusion in society--no matter where they live. It's something we already do, with great success, in the United States. Early versions of the treaty embodied this principle, and in addition, would ease the international transfer of accessible books for people with disabilities.

In the end, a good treaty would mean real progress, and allow accessible books to reach millions of disabled people in other countries. Extending our own principles--that should be the United States' negotiating position.

Now, the progress made is all in jeopardy. Private interests have been hard at work to insert poison pills in the treaty, such as provisions that make the treaty either unpalatable for many countries to sign on to it or too complex to implement. It's a terrible case of private interest trumping the public good.

In the last few months we've seen the trade delegations from the United States and the European Union, at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), suddenly changed course and start advocating for positions that are contrary to current U.S. law--positions that would be hard for me to imagine passing our Congress. It has gotten to the point where many observers of the negotiations, being held at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, believe that it's turning into a "Treaty to Protect Rightsholders from the Blind!"

Why does this matter? Because at the rate we're going, we'll end up with a Treaty that doesn't help the blind, but instead advances the intellectual property agenda of the MPAA. It would be an absolute shame for this to happen.

The MPAA has claimed, in a public statement, that they are only seeking "balance." Are you as confused as I am about that? One of the most powerful industries on the planet, which already has loads of treaties and laws protecting its interests, needs to find balance against some of the most economically and information disadvantaged people on the planet? Especially since the Treaty for the Blind, if it were written to actually help the blind, would comply with all of those treaties and laws. And, that's not even mentioning that fact that the MPAA has already gotten their content excluded from the Treaty years ago. That's what the MPAA calls "balance?"

I feel quite strongly about this because of how well a balanced copyright law can work, and does work, right here in the United States. Our Bookshare library is allowed to scan just about any book needed by a person who is blind or print-disabled: we now have 190,000 of the most in-demand books and textbooks needed in accessible forms like braille, large print, and audio output. Today, as new books are produced, they are "born digital." We have the policies and we have the technology to make sure that, as Bookshare's General Manager Betsy Beaumon says, "All materials that are born digital are born accessible." We are at a point where accessibility can and should be the default mode for all books.

So, in the MPAA's "balanced" world, a system that works well in the United States--and helps hundreds of thousands of people--should be advocated against by our trade delegation? Huh?

To give you an idea of the poison pills being advocated for by the MPAA, publishers, and now the U.S. trade delegation, I've outlined the most notable ones below:

1. Commercial Availability Requirements. This poison pill says that if a book is commercially available in an accessible format, it can't be provided by a library to a person with a disability. This is equivalent to walking into a public library and finding padlocks on all the books with a note that says: "If you want to read it, buy it." With a commercial availability requirement, libraries like Bookshare, with hundreds of thousands of accessible books available to people with print disabilities, would have to go through such complex bureaucracy that we couldn't afford to serve people outside the U.S. under a Treaty. The World Blind Union's lead negotiator pointed out how these provisions would, in practice, stop Bookshare from serving blind people in India.

2. The "Three-Step Test" Chokehold. The three-step test is part of international copyright law meant to allow countries to reflect their own values in their copyright exceptions. The United States' copyright exception for the blind is a shining example of something that complies with the three-step test. So what are the negotiators trying to do? They are working to alter the very meaning of the three-step test, changing the language of the test to the point of which it will put a chokehold on a country's ability to make broader exceptions to copyrights. Which leads to #3.

3. Conflicts with American Law. Simply put--the US won't sign it. Our trade delegation is now advocating for a Treaty that would require, if ratified, the U.S. Congress to gut our model copyright exception. Essentially, the Treaty would be too poisonous for the U.S. to swallow. It's clear to everyone that if we couldn't even get the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which was pretty much identical to our own Americans with Disabilities Act, ratified by the Senate, a poisoned Treaty for the Blind has no chance of ratification.

What it all boils down to is this: Content owners, such as the MPAA, are advocating for stronger, more clearly defined protections...for themselves. That's their version of balance--trying to use a Treaty for the Blind as a tactic to advance their broader agenda. And it's shameful that instead of being honest about their intentions, they instead accuse groups like the World Blind Union--who are pretty much focused on making the world better for blind people--of trying to "undermine the global marketplace." Americans who care about accessibility need to let the Obama Administration know they don't want a poisoned Treaty!

This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post.


Gil Frank said…
Thank you for speaking up! Shame on them.

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