Treaty for the Blind in Jeopardy, Copyright Zealots to Blame

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In a few weeks, the nations of the world will gather in Morocco to finalize a treaty that could help the millions of blind and visually impaired have affordable access to books, but lobbyists from Hollywood and the publishing industry are making a last minute push to fatally weaken the Treaty – despite getting all their previous demands.


In a few weeks, the 186 governments that are members of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) will gather in Morocco with the goal of crafting a Treaty For The Blind.  The agreement would facilitate global production and lending of audio books, Braille translations, and otherwise enable the visually impaired and those with certain learning disabilities to have affordable access to books. 

This will most benefit the millions of blind people in the developing world who live in poverty, by adopting many of the rights to translate works into braille or other forms accessible to the visually impaired that are already law in the United States.

But last minute lobbying by Hollywood and publishing interests in the U.S. and Europe have threatened to derail the Treaty for the Blind at the last minute.

We are asking everyone to please sign this We The People Petition telling the Obama Administration to side with the blind, not Hollywood.

Click Here To Sign the Petition

(To add insult to injury, blind people can’t access this White House petition because the audio version of the captcha – the authentication code – is, well, inaudible. Could we make this more infuriating for the visually impaired community? See below!)

Why Is This at WIPO? And Why Would Anyone Oppose It?

Why is this a matter for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)? Because while the United States has specific exceptions to copyright to facilitate the production of books for the blind, as well as laws facilitating access to video and online content for the blind, many other countries do not.

Copyright laws in many countries around the world prevent the visually impaired and those with reading disabilities from having access to books or other kinds of content. 

Trying to negotiate licenses to create audio versions of works for the blind is difficult too, providing for special equipment with digital rights management (DRM) demanded by publishers for audio ebooks is complicated and expensive, and rightsholders typically want more money than many in the developing world can afford.

As advocates for the blind keep pointing out, we have had these exceptions in copyright lawsince 1996 without destroying the multi-bajillion dollar movie and publishing industries.

Nevertheless, industry trade associations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have fought the Treaty For the Blind tooth and nail since negotiations began at WIPO in earnest in 2009.

Despite Getting Movies Excluded From The Treaty, MPAA Leads A Last Minute Lobbying Effort To Weaken It Further. 

According to Jamie Love at Knowledge Ecology International, who has worked tirelessly on this Treaty for years, the MPAA promised in 2012 to support the treaty if the U.S. would:

(a) prevent the Treaty from being extended to the closed captioning and other access technologies for the deaf;

(b) remove all reference in the Treaty to audiovisual works. (See Jamie’s article describing this here and KEI’s Treaty for the Blind resource page here.)

The United States complied and did what MPAA demanded.

But, in true Evil Villain form from one of its own movies, MPAA has reneged on the bargain. MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd has, according to Love, personally led a furious last minute lobbying campaign to insert even more outrageous terms in the Treaty.  

Activist for the visually impaired and advocate for the Treaty Jim Fruchterman explains that the proposed changes would transform this from a Treaty for the blind into “a Treaty to Protect Rightsholders From the blind.”

But Why? Why Would MPAA Do This When the Treaty Won’t Even Include Movies? 

According to MPAA CEO Chris Dodd, the MPAA and other trade associations opposing the current Treaty draft just want “balance.” But as with so many other Hollywood villains, Dodd’s self-justifying soliloquy reveals too much. Dodd alludes to the mythical conspiracy of piracy lovers (in this case, a conspiracy of blind people) to “use this meaningful treaty as a vehicle to weaken copyright and ultimately undermine the global marketplace WIPO is charged with strengthening.” 

This horde of pirates-in-blind-sheep’s-clothing, Dodd maintains, “have advocated for the inclusion of certain provisions that would establish lower thresholds for copyright protection and weaken certain means used for protecting copyright works.”

Dodd manages to add a tone of injury and betrayal that this is all taking place at WIPO, which Dodd tells us, is supposed to be about strengthening copyright laws — not recognizing even modest limitations and exceptions to copyright to help the blind!

Let’s set aside the fact that this sounds like “How dare you defy me, you fools! You give me no choice but to destroy you!” Instead, let us translate what Dodd actually says. 

For the MPAA, Exceptions and Limitations to Copyright — Even For The Blind — Are Not Balance, But Heresy That Must Be Stamped Out!

The entire point of the Treaty for the Blind is to craft an exception to copyright similar to the one enshrined in U.S. law precisely because the maximalist copyright regimes MPAA and others have tried (with considerable success) to impose on the rest of the world make it practically impossible to make affordable books for the blind available in the developing world.

But the MPAA and big media see even this limited exception as a ‘lower threshold for copyright.’ A Treaty acknowledging that such an exception and limitation to copyright is beneficial and serves the common good would, in Dodd’s words, “weaken copyright” and “ultimately undermine the global marketplace WIPO is charged with strengthening.”

This current draft of the WIPO Treaty for the Blind would go further than mere abstract recognition.

It declares that countries should universally recognize that the interest in making books available to the blind requires some modest limitation and exception to copyright. While U.S. law has long recognized this, and struck a balance between protecting the right of authors and publishers to get paid and the right of the visually impaired to have affordable access to book, many other countries do not.

To even acknowledge that any balance between copyright and some other right would require copyright to yield, is such anathema to MPAA that they will fight it to the death.

What We Can Do

It ill behoves the United States, where a free people boast they live by a rule of law that gives its citizens an exemption to copyright as a matter of right not as a matter of grace, to support such a twisted vision.

And as a free people, with the right and responsibility to “petition our government for redress of grievances,” it falls to us to take action when our government loses its moral compass and sides with Hollywood over the blind.

The first step requires little effort, just the willingness to click a link and sign the We the People petition asking the U.S. to side with the blind rather than with Hollywood and support the Treaty for the Blind unencumbered by burdensome conditions  that render the treaty unusable..

We have already made these rights available to ourselves. We as a Nation should stand for these values globally, securing the same rights for the blind globally that we recognize as fundamental here. 

Sign the We The People Petition.

Image by Flickr user Normann.

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