“Meeting the Needs of the Visually Impaired Persons: What Challenges for IP?”
(A meeting hosted by WIPO in Geneva on 13th July 2009)

Presentation by Mr. Christopher Friend

WBU Strategic Objective Leader – Accessibility; Chair WBU Global Right to Read Campaign; Programme Development Advisor, Sightsavers International cfriend@sightsavers


Your Excellencies, Director-General, Ambassador Singh, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am making this presentation today on behalf of the entire Visually Impaired Sector representing the World Blind Union, the International Council for Educators of the Visually Impaired, IFLA’s Libraries for Persons with Print Disabilities Section and the Daisy Consortium who have developed the latest Talking Book system. My colleague Dipendra Manocha from Daisy will be speaking later especially about the needs and challenges facing visually impaired readers in the developing countries. I have only ten minutes to address you this morning so I will come straight to the point.

Two hundred years ago this year Louis Braille was born in Paris. His six dot tactile system of reading and writing opened the door to books, information and knowledge for the visually impaired.

When the world has the braille and Daisy technologies to enable blind people to read books as easily as sighted people, why is there still such blatant discrimination against them, evidenced by the fact that only 5% of all published works are produced in accessible formats which they can read?

We have the technology, and now all that we need is the political will to enable visually impaired and other print disabled readers to enjoy equality of opportunity – that opportunity to walk down the High Street, to enter a public library or a book stall and borrow, or purchase, the latest book title that everyone else is reading because they knew that it would be available in digital audio, large print or braille formats.

The World Blind Union recently provided WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights with a draft Treaty Proposal on Copyright and the Visually Impaired as part of a twin-track approach to finding a political solution to this book famine. On the one hand, our ongoing dialogue with the Rights Holders is seeking to find convergence on operational matters such as the integration of accessibility features into publishing software and on the question of the security on sharing digital master files, both of which will hopefully lead to an increase in accessible publishing of future titles.

On the other hand, whilst the Rights Holders do not favour Copyright Exceptions, we believe that there is clear justification for the proposed Treaty, which would specifically facilitate a number of situations preventing accessibility, such as the cross-border exchange and sharing of our own current collections legally made under Copyright Exceptions. However current Copyright law bars this, even though the Rights Holders have taken an understandable business decision to suspend the active pursuit of their own financial interests by voluntarily choosing not to publish accessible formats of 95%of all their titles.

Let me share with you the impact this Treaty, if implemented, would immediately have for millions of visually impaired readers. For example, in Spain, ONCE the national organisation of the blind holds over 100,000 titles in accessible formats and in Argentina, Tiflolibros holds over 50,000 titles in accessible formats – between them they would like to share and exchange their titles with all visually impaired readers who live in the nineteen Spanish speaking countries across Latin America. This they cannot currently do because of copyright, but the proposed Treaty would make this possible.

Similarly, there are collections totalling hundreds of thousands in the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and literally millions of visually impaired readers in the 60 other countries, where English is either spoken as the first or second choice language, could benefit from having access to these charitable collections. Again this they cannot do because of copyright but the Treaty would make it possible.

France, Canada, Belgium, Luxemburg and Switzerland could, similarly, share their collections of French titles with the book-starved visually impaired in Francophone African countries; Brazil and Portugal could also share with Portuguese speaking countries like Angola, Mozambique, East Timor and Macau; all other language groups including Arabic, Russian and many others could do the same. Again current copyright forbids this but the Treaty would make it possible.

Another example is China and India who have huge Diaspora communities living around the world. Recently the Canadian National Institute for the Blind had a request from some newly blinded Asian Diaspora immigrants living in Canada for some accessible Hindi books, but because of the current Copyright law they could not lift the telephone and ask Dipendra Manocha to send some accessible format books on loan from his library in New Delhi.

Is it not an act of gross inhumanity that Governments should look on whilst 314 million visually impaired readers are incarcerated in a world without books? The Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay Treaty Proposal is asking States to decide whether to continue preventing or to begin allowing visually impaired persons around the world access to these collections of education, leisure and culture works already available when it will in no way harm the financial rights of the authors and publishers.

The visually impaired reading community live in hope that current cooperation with the Rights Holders will lead to more books being published in accessible formats in the future, but there is no way that the Rights Holders will reverse their earlier business decision and suddenly retro-publish literally millions of accessible versions of their titles from the past. But the visually impaired organisations have hundreds of thousands of these past titles in accessible formats in our own current collections and want to cross-border share and exchange these to provide a much richer choice of titles to all visually impaired readers around the world. Copyright is currently preventing this and one of the benefits of the proposed Treaty would be to make this possible.

As I conclude, let me highlight one further consequence of the copyright status quo. Current copyright jurisdiction is at the national level which the Rights Holders prefer, but this nearly doubles the cost to visually impaired organisations of producing unnecessary accessible format duplicate master files of books in each country. For example, when Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2) by J.K. Rowling was published the English speaking visually impaired organisations around the world had to produce 5 separate national braille master files and 8 separate national Daisy audio master files. The unnecessary use of financial and production resources for this duplication would have enabled the new production of a further 4 braille titles and a further 7 Daisy audio titles for sharing around the world.

It is for this reason that the WBU is encouraged that Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay are sponsoring the need for the Treaty on Copyright and the Visually Impaired to provide the political way to solving this unnecessary Book Famine. How long must we wait before the world will realise that to deny people access to knowledge is denying them a fundamental Human Right.

The current copyright status quo surely continues to provide an indefensible imbalance between the Creators Rights and the Human Rights of visually impaired readers and your support for this Treaty would help to correct this imbalance without any financial disadvantage to the Rights Holders. We believe that a twin-track approach, working with the Rights Holders and progressing the Treaty Proposal are complimentary twin tracks, which together offer a real chance of bringing a full solution into being.