Meeting the Needs of Visually Impaired Persons: What Challenges for IP?
(CICG, Geneva: July 13, 2009)

Presentation by Mr. Swashpawan Singh

The WIPO VIP Initiative

Mr Director General, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests and Friends,

I consider it an honour to have been invited to make brief Opening Remarks on this important occasion. We meet today to draw attention to, and increase awareness about, an issue that deserves priority attention because it is an urgent need that has remained unattended for a long time. The Visually Impaired Persons do not as yet have access to ordinary printed text. This is their fundamental human right. They have a right like every other person to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers. This would enable them to participate more fully in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

The good news is that there is growing consensus that this need must be addressed and with urgency. The not so good news is that despite this realization Visually Impaired Persons continue to face barriers to accessing information, public communication and cultural materials, in many countries irrespective of their level of development.

Some facts merit attention. It is estimated that there are more than 160 million blind or Visually Impaired Persons in the world. Of these more than 90% are resident in developing countries. There are a large number of children and women among them. They collectively face serious social and economic constraints, they experience reduced educational opportunities, lower employment prospects and a more restricted social life than sighted people. The shortage of books, newspapers, magazines and information materials in accessible formats only aggravates this inequitable situation.

Acknowledging this need the Member States gave a mandate to WIPO in the SCCR 17 in November 2008 to deal without delay and with appropriate deliberation, with the needs of the blind and visually impaired and determine possible ways and means for facilitating and enhancing access to protected works. This was to include analysis of limitations and exceptions and the possible establishment of a stakeholders’ platform at WIPO. In pursuit of this mandate WIPO has structured the VIP Initiative with the objective to make available published works in accessible formats in a reasonable time frame.

It is clear that without contravening the legitimate interests of rightsholders, 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, to enhance opportunities for the literacy, independence and productivity of VIPs. This is at the heart of the work of the Stakeholders’ Platform led by WIPO. The Platform brings together major stakeholders, including representatives of copyright holders and reading impaired persons to explore their specific needs and concerns and with the aim of creating operational and practical arrangements.

In the two meetings of the Stakeholders’ in January and April this year a set of elements were identified which could form the focus of a WIPO-led process involving multiple public and private sector stakeholders. These included consideration of: (1)an enabling legal regime; (2)technological tools for the conversion of works;(3) issues of formats, standards and interoperability;(4) concerns relating to development and specific needs of developing countries; (5)creating and disseminating information materials and training modules; and(6) assessment of particular challenges posed by the digital environment. A number of studies were identified and commissioned relating to new technologies, trusted intermediaries and technical formats which would enhance understanding of complex technical issues and contribute to development of greater trust between the VIP community and the Rightsholders. It is gratifying that in the SCCR 18 held in May the Member States, on the basis of the interim Report presented by WIPO have endorsed the progress made so far and approved the further steps proposed. Greater emphasis on participation and concerns of Developing Countries, raised by a number of Member States has been noted and will be taken on board for the future.

As the VIP Initiative makes progress it is clear that this is a Member State driven initiative based on a specific mandate given to WIPO. Its continued progress would depend upon the commitment and support of Member States and on their ability to take on board the interests of all stakeholders. It will be essential for them to better appreciate the technology and technical requirements and work with diligence to evolve a consensus on the modalities of an enabling legal regime and a viable and practical technical framework. The specific needs and circumstances of developing countries would have to be addressed if this initiative has to make a difference on the ground for the majority of the VIPs. The task of WIPO will be to facilitate a process which can lead to the desired outcomes within a reasonable time frame.

This meeting, it is hoped, will enable stakeholders and Member States to exchange views and contribute to a better understanding of the issues involved. It will also through open and inclusive discussion enhance trust amongst the stakeholders and assist the process of consensus building.