Victory for Access to Books for the Blind

Countries agree on historic treaty to increase access to books for the blind.


Late yesterday night, countries gathered at Marrakesh, Morocco, agreed on a treaty designed to promote greater access to books for the blind and other visually impaired persons. As many have explained, currently, the blind have access to less than 5% of printed material in most parts of the world and this treaty is designed to change that situation. Representatives of the blind, public interest organizations, and library groups working on this treaty have expressed their happiness with the text.

Here is a quick summary of how the treaty could increase access to books for the blind:

1. The treaty directs countries to impose limits on exclusive rights over in books so that they can be converted to Braille and other accessible formats and be distributed to the blind.

2. The treaty provides a mechanism for exchange of accessible format works across national borders, by removing copyright law impediments that prevented such exchange. Such exchange is important because producing accessible format copies of works is expensive and the ability to import existing formats reduces costs.

3. The treaty provides a mechanism to remove barriers that DRM imposes on access to digital books.

4. The current text of the treaty removes earlier proposals that would have limited cross border exchange by requiring a burdensome inquiry into whether an accessible format work was available in the importing country at a reasonable price.

This treaty had been in the making for the past five years and has faced an uphill battle. Publishers and movie industry representatives opposed many beneficial provisions in the treaty claiming that such provisions would weaken the copyright system and set a precedent for adoption of future international agreements that limit copyright. Despite their strong opposition, advocates for the blind succeeded in getting a good treaty in Morocco. Governments successfully resisted lobbying pressure to do the right thing.

The conclusion of the treaty is certainly not the end of the struggle for accessibility. The treaty will now have to be ratified by a good number of countries. Countries will then have to make changes in their law and practice in line with the requirements of the treaty and ensure that the promise of the treaty turns into reality.

While that is a struggle for the future, today its time to savor success. PK congratulates the World Blind Union, Knowledge Ecology International, library representatives, and delegates from all WIPO countries. Their tireless work has resulted in a historic document that would significantly reduce the obstacles that the blind face in accessing knowledge and information.

Original image by Flickr user Jim Fruchterman.

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