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Landmark treaty opens doors for the visually impaired

August 2013

In a move widely heralded as a triumph for multilateralism, WIPO's member states recently concluded a landmark agreement that will boost access to literature, entertainment and learning for blind, visually impaired and print disabled people around the world.

(Photo: WIPO/Berrod)
The Marrakesh Treaty adopted by WIPO member states in June 2013 seeks to alleviate the book famine which excludes millions of visually impaired people from the bulk of the world's published works.

After five years of intense negotiations, on June 27, 2013, WIPO's 186 member states adopted the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled at a Diplomatic Conference hosted by the Kingdom of Morocco. Why was this historic treaty needed and how will it help improve access to published works by blind, visually impaired and print disabled people around the world?

International copyright: a balancing act

Since the first international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention on the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, was concluded in 1886, international copyright law has recognized the need to balance the rights of authors of creative works and special provisions (known as "limitations and exceptions ") that are in the public interest. The Berne Convention and subsequent copyright treaties include these special provisions that allow for some uses of copyrighted material without authorization from the rightholder. The definition of the "special cases " to which these provisions apply is left to national governments, the only caveat being that the reproduction of the works produced under them "does not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work and does not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author. "

In practice the copyright limitations and exceptions contained in national laws vary widely. A study undertaken by WIPO in 2006 indicated that just 57 countries had special provisions for visually impaired persons in their copyright laws. Because copyright law is territorial, where such special provisions exist in national law they do not cover the import or export of works converted into accessible formats (such as Braille, large print and digitized audio versions of works), even between countries with similar rules. Organizations seeking to produce works in accessible formats have to negotiate with rightholders to exchange special formats across borders or pay to produce their own materials.

This complex situation explains why, according to the World Blind Union (WBU), of the millions of books published each year around the world less than 5 percent are available in formats accessible to visually impaired persons. It explains why, for example, the Libraries of the National Organization of Spanish Blind People (ONCE) which has more than 100,000 titles and its counterpart in Argentina with over 50,000 works cannot share their titles with Latin America's other 19 Spanish-speaking countries.

Recognizing the need to address this problem, in 2004, WIPO's member states began exploring whether copyright limitations and exceptions in general should be harmonized internationally. The adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities added impetus to these discussions with respect to visually impaired persons and led to calls for a formal treaty to address the situation in respect of the global community of visually impaired persons. These discussions culminated, in June 2013, in the adoption of the landmark Marrakesh Treaty.

What the treaty does

The Marrakesh Treaty seeks to alleviate the book famine which excludes millions of visually impaired persons from access to the bulk of the world's published works. It requires countries that agree to be bound by its provisions (so-called contracting parties) to adopt provisions in their national law that permit the reproduction, distribution and making available of published works in accessible formats through limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright holders.

(Photo: WIPO/Berrod)
Recording legend Stevie Wonder who has been closely following the negotiations, urged governments to make ratification of the treaty a priority.

It also provides for the exchange of these accessible format works across borders by organizations that serve the blind, visually impaired or print disabled. It is the first international treaty to harmonize these types of special provisions internationally, making it easier for organizations to share works in accessible formats with their foreign counterparts and eliminating duplication, improving efficiency and reducing costs of production in the process. Instead of multiple countries producing accessible copies of the same work, each country will be able to produce a different work in an accessible format which can then be shared with other countries.

"It's a wonderful achievement for the international community," said WIPO Director General Francis Gurry, noting the "diversity of interests " surrounding the issue and applauding the negotiators for their ability to reach consensus in creating a "simple, workable and effective " framework that respects the international architecture of the copyright system. "The treaty has achieved a very fair balance between the various interests that converge on the subject. It is a treaty that will make a difference; it will have a concrete and positive impact and it will contribute to reducing the book famine from which the visually impaired persons have suffered for too long. "

"It's a miracle! " said the President of the WIPO Diplomatic Conference, His Excellency Mr. Mustapha El Khalfi, Morocco's Minister of Communications. "What has happened here in Marrakesh represents hope for the blind community and the international community. We are giving a human face to globalization. "

When will it take effect?

The treaty will enter into force when 20 WIPO member states agree to be bound by its provisions through a process of ratification or accession. Now that the treaty is a reality, the work begins to ensure it is widely adopted by member states so that the benefits that will flow from it are enjoyed by those for whom it is intended. Shortly after the treaty's adoption, recording legend Stevie Wonder who has been closely following the negotiations, congratulated international negotiators on their success in concluding the treaty but urged governments to ratify it. "I am respectfully and urgently asking all governments and states to prioritize ratification of this treaty so that it will become law of the land in your respective countries and states," he told delegates at the closing ceremony of the WIPO Diplomatic Conference.

WIPO's Stakeholders' Platform for Visually Impaired Persons

In addition to the legal measures to improve access by visually impaired persons to published works enshrined in the Marrakesh Treaty, a number of complementary practical initiatives to improve the availability of published works in relevant formats have been under development.

In 2008, the SCCR decided to establish a Stakeholders' Platform at WIPO. Its aims are first, to improve the availability of works in large print, Braille and other formats in a timely manner and second, to minimize the unnecessary and costly production of multiple copies of the same work by organizations serving visually impaired persons in different countries by facilitating the international exchange of such works.


An initiative known as TIGAR, the Trusted Intermediaries Global Accessible Resources project was launched in 2010. The TIGAR pilot brings together various institutions serving the visually impaired community to facilitate access to works in relevant formats such as audio, large print and Braille. "TIGAR is a public-private partnership designed to facilitate movement of works in accessible formats to visually impaired persons around the world," said WIPO Director General Francis Gurry. "It complements the enabling framework established in the recently adopted Marrakesh Treaty by creating an operational system to ease the book famine that the global visually impaired community has faced for too long. TIGAR is a powerful vehicle for ensuring better access to published works by visually impaired persons and promises to open new doors to literature and learning ".

The project involves the creation of a database containing the titles of works in accessible formats that participating organizations around the world can search to acquire such works, as well as developing the systems required for cross-border transfer of such works in various formats. The database now contains some 200,000 searchable titles with details of available formats and the participating organizations from which they may be obtained. Some participating intermediaries are already integrating these titles into their collections and making them available to the community they serve. To date, 21 trusted intermediaries and 45 rightholders have signed up to TIGAR.

The Enabling Technologies Framework

A second initiative, known as the Enabling Technologies Framework (ETF) launched in June 2010 is jointly run by two international standards bodies, the DAISY Consortium and EDItEUR. The DAISY Consortium focuses on the development and promotion of standards and technologies for the visually impaired community. EDItEUR develops, promotes and implements accessible publishing processes and meta data standards across the publishing industry. The project seeks to promote the development and use of standard technological processes and systems for the mainstream production of accessible publications.


A third focus of the Stakeholders' Platform is to build capacity and strengthen links with Trusted Intermediaries and the publishing industry in developing and least developed countries. Capacity-building activities are already underway in Namibia and Bangladesh and others are planned for Sri Lanka and the United Republic of Tanzania later in the year.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.