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Limitations and Exceptions: Access to Books for the Visually Impaired – Background Brief

What Happened Between June 18-28

Hundreds of negotiators from nations around the world gathered in Morocco to finalize an international treaty designed to ease access to published material for persons who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled. The meeting in Marrakesh, hosted by the Kingdom of Morocco and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), was the culmination of over a decade of discussions on how to bring more accessible works in formats like Braille, large print and audio books to the beneficiaries, many of whom live in lower-income countries.

The treaty, called the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled, will enter into force after it has been ratified by 20 WIPO members that agree to be bound by its provisions.

The treaty addresses a “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 is humbling to know that when the weakest among us is in need, you answered the call with a steely determination and a steadfast courage to make a difference. Today we all are brothers and sisters in the struggle to make this life and the future better, not for one, but for all.

Stevie Wonder, US singer-songwriter to negotiators in Marrakesh.

It also provides for the exchange of these accessible format works across borders by organizations that serve 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. For example, 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.

The treaty is also designed to provide assurances to authors and publishers that the 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 unreasonably 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.

Now, the countries that joined the treaty must ratify the document in their own jurisdictions.

“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,” Stevie Wonder told delegates after making good on a promise to travel to Morocco to celebrate the adoption of a treaty.

Why It Matters

According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 285 million 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 persons who are blind, visually impaired, or print disabled, for example, for Braille, large print or digitized audio versions1 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 the beneficiaries 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 accessible formats. And, for example, while the ONCE library in Spain has more than 100,000 titles in accessible formats and Argentina has over 50,000, these titles cannot be shared with the 19 Spanish-speaking countries across Latin America. Similarly, some years ago, charities working in five English-speaking countries, including the Royal National Institute for the Blind in the UK and Vision Australia, were obliged to produce five identical Braille master files for the same Harry Potter book, costing them valuable time and money.

Some Background on Copyright

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 foundation of international copyright law, 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 make exceptions for, say, distance learning. Moreover, the exemptions apply only in the country concerned. This hodge-podge of national rules may prove difficult to use in the digital age, in which copies of copyrighted works can be made and transmitted across borders with a few mouse clicks. Thus, since 2004, WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) has been considering whether certain exemptions should be harmonized internationally.

Last updated: January 2014

  1. The Digital Accessible Information System (Daisy) converts original texts to audio books that can be easily navigated by persons who are blind, visually impaired, or print disabled. Based on open standards, Daisy is run by a non-profit international consortium of talking book libraries and others.