By Edward Harris
When legendary showman Stevie Wonder took the microphone in Marrakesh one year ago, he congratulated the audience of weary treaty negotiators for successfully concluding a new pact to help ease access to books for people with visual impairments around the globe, particularly in less-developed regions.
But everyone knew that years of negotiations finalized in the fabled Moroccan city did not mean an end to the hard work – and Stevie underlined the message:
"It is humbling to know that when the weakest amongst us is in need, you answered the call with a steely determination and a steadfast courage to make a difference,” he said. “While the signing of this treaty is a historic and important step, I am respectfully and urgently asking all governments and states to prioritize ratification of this treaty so that it will become the law of the land in your respective countries and states."
Ending the book famine
One year later, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, scores of nations have signed the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, which addresses the “book famine” by requiring its contracting parties to adopt national law provisions that permit the reproduction, distribution and making available of published works in accessible formats through limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright owners.
And the needs are stark: According to the World Health Organization’s 2013 estimates, there are more than 285 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.
The treaty will take effect after 20 ratifications or accessions are presented to WIPO. India was the first to do so on June 24, 2014.
Much has been done over the past year to get ready for the implementation of the treaty.
Accessible Books Consortium
In one notable development, WIPO and a group of key stakeholders in late June launched the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC).
The ABC was created to help implement the objectives of the Marrakesh Treaty at a practical level through work in three areas: the sharing of technical skills in developing and least developed countries to produce and distribute books in accessible formats, promoting inclusive publishing, and building an international database and book exchange of accessible books.
Through its work on capacity building in developing and least developed countries, the ABC is helping to boost technical knowledge on how to produce accessible books, particularly for school books in national languages. The ABC also promotes inclusive publishing, which encourages publishers to deliver digital publications for sighted audiences that are equally accessible to the print disabled – a system known as “born accessible” – as well as encouraging the adoption of an industry-wide accessibility standard.
Under the auspices of ABC, WIPO also hosts the TIGAR (Trusted Intermediary Global Accessible Resources) book exchange, a database of the titles of over 238,000 accessible format books in 55 languages from libraries from around the world.
The promise of the Marrakesh Treaty
When the Marrakesh Treaty takes effect, the benefits of what some call the “books for the blind treaty” will be felt by persons with visual impairments, none more so than in the developing world – such as the children of the “Institut des Aveugles” (Institute for the Blind) in the Yopougon neighborhood in the main Cote d’Ivoire port city of Abidjan.
There, children with visual impairments from around the country learn to read Braille and otherwise communicate with the support of government funds. Manicured lawns and airy classrooms give the children a peaceful learning environment, with high walls warding off the frantic commercial activity in the streets outside.
But the library, even with shelves stocked with Braille printed matter, has plenty of room for more specially adapted books.
According to the World Blind Union, of the million or so books published each year in the world, less than 10% are made available in formats accessible to visually impaired persons.
The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled, named after the city that hosted the diplomatic conference that concluded the treaty, addresses the “book famine” by requiring its contracting parties to adopt national law provisions that permit the reproduction, distribution and making available of published works in accessible formats through limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright rightholders.
It also provides for the exchange of these accessible format works across borders by organizations that serve the people who are blind, visually impaired, and print disabled. It will harmonize limitations and exceptions so that these organizations can operate across borders. This sharing of works in accessible formats should increase the overall number of works available because it will eliminate duplication and increase efficiency. Instead of five countries producing accessible versions of the same work, the five countries will each be able to produce an accessible version of a different work, which can then be shared with each of the other countries.
Currently, it is left to national governments to define what limitations and exceptions are permitted. 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.
The treaty is also designed to provide assurances to authors and publishers that the new system will not expose their published works to misuse or distribution to anyone other than the intended beneficiaries. The treaty reiterates the requirement that the cross-border sharing of works created based on limitations and exceptions must be limited to certain special cases which do not conflict with the normal exploitation of the work and do not unreasonable prejudice the legitimate interests of the rightholder.
The treaty calls for cooperation among its contracting parties in order to foster cross-border exchanges. The parties are committed to increasing the availability of published works as quickly as possible, and this cooperation will be an important step toward achieving that goal.
Furthermore, because copyright law is “territorial,” copyright 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.