June 10, 2013
Hundreds of negotiators representing countries around the world will gather later this month to work on finalizing a new international treaty to ease access to books for blind, visually impaired, and other print disabled people.
Between June 18-28, 2013, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) will convene the Diplomatic Conference to Conclude a Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities, which will be hosted by the Kingdom of Morocco at the Palais des Congres in Marrakesh.
The meeting which will draw representatives from WIPO’s 186-nation membership, will be opened by WIPO Director General Francis Gurry and high ranking Moroccan Government and Marrakesh city officials. Morocco’s Minister of Communications and Government Spokesperson Mustapha Khalfi will preside over the conference.
The Diplomatic Conference is expected to be the culmination of years of discussions on bringing more books in accessible versions such as Braille, large print and digitized audio formats to the blind, visually impaired, and other print disabled people, the majority of whom live in lower-income countries. The beneficiaries will have better access to novels, textbooks and other material that they can use for education and enjoyment.
Following preliminary discussions, WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) has been considering since 2004 whether certain copyright exemptions should be harmonized internationally for the visually impaired and persons with print disabilities.
Further impetus to the WIPO talks has come from adoption of the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states (Article 30) that laws protecting intellectual property must not pose a discriminatory or unreasonable barrier limiting access to cultural materials.
A proposal for a treaty was submitted in May 2009 by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay.
In December 2012, member states met in an extraordinary session of the General Assembly and agreed that negotiations had sufficiently advanced to warrant the convening of a diplomatic conference. Two further negotiating sessions were held in Geneva in February and April 2013 to advance discussions further.
Provisional agreement has already been reached on several essential elements of the proposal, including its beneficiaries, namely visually impaired persons, other print-disabled people or those unable because of physical disability to read a standard text.
Member states have also provisionally agreed on key definitions for the works covered by the text and the “authorized entities”1 that would provide accessible versions of published works to persons with visual impairment or print disabilities.
The proposal would include a requirement for countries to introduce exceptions and limitations in their copyright laws to allow the production of books in accessible formats as well as to permit the international sharing across borders of accessible format copies for people with print disabilities.
But the draft text that is the basis of the Marrakesh negotiations still contains a number of issues which require agreement. Those issues will be the subject of negotiations at the diplomatic conference.
The traditional method for concluding treaties has been through the holding of a diplomatic conference of plenipotentiaries specifically convened for that purpose. Diplomatic conferences continue to be held, from time to time, to negotiate and adopt multilateral treaties of particular significance to the international community.
A WIPO diplomatic conference is typically convoked by a resolution of the WIPO General Assembly. The constitutive resolution of the Assembly defines the object of the conference and the general conditions for Diplomatic conferences are governed by their own rules of procedure and general international law. Accordingly, it is the conference itself which adopts the treaty and a final act.
Upon opening, the diplomatic conference in Marrakesh will be divided into two committees: Main Committee I and Main Committee II. The first committee’s mandate is to negotiate and agree on all substantive provisions and recommend them for adoption by the plenary. The second committee is charged with negotiating and agreeing on all administrative and final clauses, such as who can join the future treaty and the conditions for its entry into force. Three other side committees are also formed: the Credentials Committee, which verifies credentials of delegations to participate in the conference and to sign the treaty; the Drafting Committee, which ensures the six language versions of the treaty are properly aligned; and the Steering Committee, which includes the chief officers of all the committees and ensures the process is on track.
When all committees finalize their work, the treaty is sent to the plenary for adoption. It is then open for signature. Signing the treaty at the end of a diplomatic conference does not necessarily bind a country to its provisions. It is however a strong indication of intent by the signatory to join the treaty. The final act – a record that the conference took place – also opens for signature after adoption.
According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 314 million blind and visually impaired persons in the world, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries. A WIPO survey in 2006 found that fewer than 60 countries have limitations and exceptions clauses in their copyright laws that make special provision for visually impaired persons, for example, for Braille, large print or digitized audio versions of copyrighted texts.
Furthermore, because copyright law is “territorial”, these exemptions usually do not cover the import or export of works converted into accessible formats, even between countries with similar rules. Organizations in each country must negotiate licenses with the rightholders to exchange special formats across borders, or produce their own materials, a costly undertaking that severely limits access by visually impaired persons to printed works of all kinds.
According to the World Blind Union, of the million or so books published each year in the world, less than 5 per cent are made available in formats accessible to visually impaired persons.
International copyright law has always recognized the need to balance the rights of authors of creative works and the public interest, by allowing some uses of copyrighted material to be exempted from the requirement to seek authorization from the rightholder or to pay royalties.
The international copyright treaty that is the starting point for the international copyright framework, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works of 1886, and its subsequent revisions, have all included provision for “limitations and exceptions”. The Berne Convention specifically mentions exemptions for short quotations, news reporting and illustrative use for teaching purposes.
Otherwise, it is left to national governments to define what limitations and exceptions are permitted “in certain special cases, provided that such reproduction does not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work and does not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author”.
In practice, limitations and exceptions contained in national laws vary widely. In many countries copying for private use is free, but only a few countries make exceptions for, say, distance learning. Moreover, the exemptions apply only in the country concerned.
Journalists wishing to cover the diplomatic conference should contact the Media Relations Section at WIPO.
1 Non-profit organizations recognized by both the rightholders and those with print disabilities.