Treaty for the Blind in Jeopardy, Copyright Zealots to Blame

May 29, 2013 , , ,

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

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
 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
 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
 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

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
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
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.

About Harold Feld

Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” (Public Knowledge & Roosevelt Institute 2019) a guide on what government can do to preserve competition and empower individual users in the huge swath of our economy now referred to as “Big Tech.” Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described this book as, “[...] a tour de force of the issues raised by the digital economy and internet capitalism.” For more than 20 years, Feld has practiced law at the intersection of technology, broadband, and media policy in both the private sector and in the public interest community. Feld has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Boston University, and clerked for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Feld also writes “Tales of the Sausage Factory,” a progressive blog on media and telecom policy. In 2007, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin praised him and his blog for “[doing] a lot of great work helping people understand how FCC decisions affect people and communities on the ground.”