Accessibility Excitement in Geneva

One of the reasons I started the Beneblog more than ten years ago (!) was to keep the Benetech team in the loop. As someone who travels roughly half the time, it’s important to provide some insight into what’s going on, especially since these meetings often influence where Benetech goes with our efforts. So, this is an in-depth report on the two days I just spent at the end of last week in Geneva. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn’t have time to write a short blog post, so I wrote a long one. This is totally the “how sausage and law are made” view, so don’t read this unless you want to know more about global accessibility in detail!

The context

We’ve been supporting the World Blind Union and other groups in the pursuit of a Treaty for the Visually Impaired for the last five or six years. The nexus for this work is the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the United Nations agency that deals with such matters. The Marrakesh Treaty was signed last year, and now the efforts are ramping up to ratify and implement the Treaty, with the goal of helping overcome the book famine faced by people with print disabilities.
A tall modern building flying a UN flag
WIPO Headquarters

The event this last week at WIPO in Geneva, Switzerland, was the ninth meeting of the Stakeholder’s Platform, which was set up about the time the original Treaty draft was introduced. There was also an associated effort called the Trusted Intermediary Global Accessible Resources (TIGAR) project, to ease the exchange of accessible book files between libraries for the blind and print disabled. The view of the World Blind Union was that the rightsholders (i.e., publishers) pushed for these voluntary efforts to weaken support for a Treaty. The WBU ended up boycotting these side efforts for a while before the Treaty was negotiated. Bookshare’s role was mixed: we didn’t end up attending many of these meetings and critiqued early efforts that were crippled by heavy-handed publisher influence, although we did propose at one point to supply technology to TIGAR based on Bookshare.

Now that the Marrakesh Treaty has been signed by sixty-odd countries, the emphasis has switched to implementing it. WIPO has a mandate from its member states, and is working to address the need to change laws and get more accessible books flowing. The Stakeholders Platform and the TIGAR project were time-limited and needed to be replaced by a new structure. This meeting in Geneva was on the form of a successor project, dubbed the Accessible Book Consortium ("ABC," of course). The ABC would wrap together efforts such as TIGAR as a sharing portal, capacity building efforts for countries trying to create accessible book services and looking at issues like licensing.

Even though Benetech doesn’t have donor funding for this, our VP of Global Literacy, Betsy Beaumon, and I thought it would be worthwhile to attend this meeting. As the most internationally engaged library for people with disabilities, we’re trying to find funding and partnerships to help bring both Bookshare’s collection and technology to bear on this problem.

The Missive

Just as I was leaving for Geneva from California, attendees received an email from Alicia Wise of Elsevier, advocating on behalf of the rightsholders for support from attendees for a particular approach to implementing Marrakesh that the publishers especially favor, to provide incentives for publishers to sign off on collective licenses to ease cross-border transfer of copyrighted accessible files. Getting some kind of licensing deal is critically important, because it will take many years for the Marrakesh Treaty to be fully implemented with its copyright exceptions. So, in the meanwhile, we will need to rely on licenses: permissions agreements.

I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. The publishers were asking for support of an approach that the WBU and Bookshare had campaigned hard against in Marrakesh. In particular, they wanted the group to endorse that a copyright exception under Marrakesh exclude works that are commercially available. A handful of countries have exceptions that work this way (Australia for one), but the Treaty did not recommend this approach. It remains an option under the Treaty, though. But, the Treaty does lean much more in the direction of a copyright exception without a commercial exemption. That’s the way the Chafee Amendment (Section 121) in U.S. law works: the one that made Bookshare possible.

I’ve been to national meetings in the U.S. where nothing got accomplished because a publisher representative objected so strenuously. These meetings generally operate on consensus, which provides a lot of power to stop progress to any attendee that won’t compromise. So, I was worried that I and a bunch of other disability advocates would be going on expensive trips to Geneva that might not make any progress.

I got in touch with Dan Pescod and Maryanne Diamond, the two key WBU leaders. They were holding an international meeting of blindness groups around the campaign to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty in London during the days before the Geneva meeting. I supplied them with some input from the Bookshare point of view, and Maryanne released a strong statement objecting to the rightsholders request. At least, both groups would be showing up in Geneva with our different positions clear.

There were quite a number of arguments against the publishers' preferred approach. My biggest argument was the “library with holes” problem. Imagine a library for people with disabilities where you can’t have a book on your shelves if a patron could buy the book in that format. This wouldn’t make a big impact on hardcopy Braille books, because almost no publishers sell them. But ebooks and audio books are by far the most popular accessible formats, and publishers do sell them (although ironically many of these have digital rights management technologies designed to defeat illegal copying but also stop accessibility technology). We believe strongly that people with disabilities should have a library that’s equal to what a non-disabled person has available to them. Especially since people with disabilities tend to be poor to a greater degree than non-disabled people.

I decided to follow through and attend. My experience with the international publishers was such that I expected there would be a way to work through this issue.

Actually in Geneva

We spent a good bit of the first day debating the points about the commercial exemption and copyright exceptions. I have to admit I’m not an expert in international licensing terminology, and I wasn’t the only other one that was confused. Bookshare has had success with getting licenses from over 200 publishers, where the publisher gives us permission to distribute all of that publishers’ books in the parts of the world where they have the legal right to do so. These already make more than 110,000 of our books available outside the U.S.  I thought those were collective licenses, but other people called these repertoire licenses, blanket licenses, comprehensive licenses and, near the end of the discussion, a collective license! Apparently, the particular kind of collective license that the publishers were discussing was different, and involved going through the eighty-plus special Reproduction Rights Organizations (RROs). So, the publishers weren’t against all licensing. They mainly felt that this kind of collective license approach would be a big hassle, and that they felt publishers needed a carrot to take on that hassle.

The disability groups understood the issue, but didn’t want to agree to provide such a carrot. And the WIPO staff had difficulty with the idea as well: their member states had negotiated a Treaty that gave ratifying countries three ways to implement a Treaty-compliant copyright exception (the U.S.-type, the Australian-type and one other I don’t remember). The WIPO staff didn’t think they could recommend one option over the other two. When they provide legal and technical assistance to countries implementing the Treaty, they need to outline all of the options and what they mean and let each country make its own decision. 

We also ended up talking about many other issues around getting more books to disabled people, the common goal of all of the attendees. I had the chance to brief the WIPO team working on these issues about what Bookshare is doing internationally right now, such as our work bringing Bookshare to India as a prototype of what we could be doing in other countries. There’s a huge interest at WIPO in helping developing countries get the assistance they need to help bring books to their people with disabilities. We had a call with Aubrey Webson of Perkins International about their experiences in different countries (Perkins has done incredible work in Africa and other regions). One particularly tall order from WIPO was the desire to have a successful pilot effort in several of the world’s Least Developed Countries, which are the toughest places to work. Developing countries like Kenya and Ghana, which are starting to make good progress on these efforts, aren’t in the LDC category.

The publishers organized a dinner for all of the stakeholders in a lively bar/restaurant, and we continued the discussions long into the night. There’s no substitute for showing up and speaking directly with people. Even though we don’t agree on many of the decisions, both sides end up understanding the other’s positions better and come up with ways to move towards each other. I was in the final group of a three disability advocates and two publisher representatives who wrapped up at 1 am!

The Formal Meeting

The second day was a more formal meeting and a bunch more people showed up (we went from about 20 to 40 people). I was surprised that the Director General of WIPO, Francis Gurry, actually presided over the half-day formal meeting: the effort was obviously getting priority from WIPO.

There was one big area of consensus. All of the stakeholders want publishers to sell accessible books though their normal business channels. This was called Inclusive Publishing at the meeting. Benetech team-members will recognize this as the same thing that we call “Born Accessible.”

The stakeholders were able to come to an agreement on establishing the Accessible Book Consortium: its structure and activities. The negotiations were actually quite congenial and got the key things accomplished. The question of licensing pretty much got punted down the road. Many of the past efforts are running out of funding (I think the publishers and DAISY each kicked in some in-kind resources over the past couple of years, and they aren’t committed to doing that indefinitely). WIPO has allocated some money to this effort, and is expecting to start approaching donors to raise money for the ABC, now that it’s clear what the structure and activities will be.

The Working Session

After the formal session concluded and we had lunch (WIPO has a new and lovely building with a nice cafeteria), a hardcore group stuck around to talk about capacity building for developing countries. Jens Bammel, the head of the International Publishers Association, also proposed a charter for publishers to sign signaling their commitment to Inclusive Publishing and helping people with disabilities with accessibility. Definitely a good thing.

The Bookshare Angle

We didn’t come to a conclusion about Bookshare’s increased involvement with WIPO, TIGAR and the new ABC. The sense in the room was that Bookshare had the largest collection of books to bring to the table, and that these books were in languages that were priorities (other than English, our nearly 5,000 Spanish titles was a boost). I had a technical conversation, which quickly exhausted my technical depth, with WIPO’s tech guru, Michael Jung, about how to feed information about Bookshare titles into the TIGAR system to make it easier to find a title from Bookshare. The tradeoff is familiar: we have two or three ways for third parties to find out what books we have, and the TIGAR project uses other ways to do that which we don’t support (but other libraries do). So, I have to connect Michael with our technical people to figure out how to get that connected and how to pay for the work involved.

Beyond that, it would be great to work with WIPO to bring Bookshare books and our assistance technology into broader service. I hope we figure out some way to offer Bookshare to the poorest countries of the world through TIGAR and the ABC!


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