World Intellectual Property Organization

IP Challenges in Meeting the Needs of Visually Impaired Persons

September 2009

WIPO organized an event on “Meeting the Needs of Visually Impaired Persons: What Challenges for IP?” on July 13, preceding the WIPO Conference on Intellectual Property and Public Policy Issues, to draw attention to the urgency of providing visually impaired persons (VIPs) – including blind and reading impaired persons – with timely access to copyright-protected content. Also highlighted was the role the intellectual property (IP) system can play in this regard.

Attended by more than 150 participants, the meeting brought together representatives from WIPO Member States and organizations representing the reading impaired, publishers and a technology consortium. Discussions focused on the challenges this issue poses from diverse perspectives, and laid the groundwork for constructive and positive talks in the near future.

The current situation

According to the World Health Organization, there are around 314 million blind and visually impaired persons in the world, and more than 90 percent live in developing countries.

A WIPO survey published in 2006 showed that – out of 184 WIPO Member States – only 57 countries have copyright laws containing specific provisions to assist VIPs. The survey also pointed to a lack of clarity as to whether distribution rights allow the circulation of copies of works in accessible formats between countries. It is clear that, without contravening the legitimate interests of right holders, greater quantities of copyright-protected material – both analog and digital – could be made available in accessible formats and disseminated across multiple jurisdictions in a timely way, enhancing VIPs’ opportunities for literacy, independence and productivity.

Addressing the problem

During the meeting, Member States expressed openness to further discuss the issue, in particular the international exchange of adapted materials across different jurisdictions. Ambassador Mario Matus (Chile) said governments not only could but must play an active role in this regard. Ambassador Babacar Carlos Mbaye (Senegal) emphasized the need for multilateral cooperation and reminded stakeholders that, while VIPs worldwide face similar disadvantages, those in least developed countries might need different solutions as technological tools were not available to them. Mr. Douglas George (Canada) stressed the importance of creating international, flexible solutions and adopting a broad, inclusive approach.

Mr. Chris Friend, of the World Blind Union, underlined that a binding, international instrument on the needs of the visually impaired would complement all current efforts. Blind readers across Latin America would have access to Braille or audiobooks produced by the organization for the blind in Spain. Francophone Africans could do the same with French collections from Canada, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland. Portuguese organizations could share copyrighted works in accessible formats with Brazil, Angola and Mozambique. Mr. Herman Spruijt, of the International Publishers Association, urged parties to adopt a flexible approach in working towards a common goal. Mr. Dipendra Manocha, of the Digital Accessible Information System Consortium, said standards were key in developing technology-based solutions to improve disability access. While thousands of works in accessible formats are already sitting in the collections of libraries or charities in industrialized countries, that content cannot be shared with counterparts in the developing world due to legal restrictions, and instead limited resources are wasted in recreating masters which already exist.

WIPO’s current work in this area encompasses two strongly complementary elements: a Stakeholders’ Platform, dealing with the numerous technical complexities involved; and a recent proposal for an international treaty on specific limitations and exceptions. The aim of the first is to put into place operational and practical arrangements within the context of the second. WIPO Director General Francis Gurry announced the launching of a website – www.visionip.org – dedicated to attracting support, exchanging views and disseminating information to all interested parties.

Participants in both this meeting and the WIPO Conference on Intellectual Property and Public Policy Issues were invited to a performance by Nigerian singer-songwriter Cobhams Emmanuel Asuquo, who was born blind, on the evening of July 13.

By Marc Luanghy and Geidy Lung, Copyright Law Division, WIPO

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