Friday, 11 October 2013

Read without seeing: improving access to books for visually impaired persons

Sarah Lux-Lee

On 27 June 2013, the anniversary of Helen Keller's birth, a Diplomatic Conference of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) adopted the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled.  The treaty is intended to ensure that books and other published materials can be made and distributed in formats accessible to people with print disabilities, such as Braille, audio and large print formats.  It does so by obligating its signatories to adopt exceptions to copyright infringement in their domestic laws, to allow accessible copies to be made and distributed within those countries without the need for permission or payment.  It also requires exceptions to enable cross-border circulation of accessible copies of copyright material, in order to reduce the global costs of providing access to copyright works.  Fifty-one countries signed the treaty on 28 June 2013, with several others having followed suit in the months since.  The treaty will enter into force once 20 countries have ratified it.

The treaty is a significant move toward ensuring equality of access to learning materials around the world.  At present, it is estimated that only 5% of the world’s books and published materials are ever published in an accessible format.  In developing countries, where blindness and visual impairment is particularly prevalent, the problem is even more acute, with an estimated 99% of published works never being made available in any accessible format.  The problem is not a technical inability to make the conversions; increasingly, sophisticated technologies are available for the fast and affordable conversion of books and other published materials into Braille, audio and large print versions.  Rather, this “book famine” persists in large part because in many of the world’s content-producing countries the conversion of a published work into an accessible format, and the import or export of such products, would amount to copyright infringement.   

According to a 2006 survey conducted by WIPO, fewer than sixty countries have limitations and exceptions in their domestic copyright laws that enable the creation and distribution of accessible works.  In addition, because of the “territorial” nature of copyright law, the exceptions that do exist in various countries rarely make allowance for the import or export of accessible works, which need to be separately negotiated with rights holders.  The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) does feature a number of exceptions and a statutory licence relating to the creation and distribution of accessible works; in this sense, Australia is a leader in the effort to ensure equal access and opportunity to those suffering print disabilities.  

The trans-border provisions of the treaty offer the potential for Australia to further enhance its contribution by implementing an additional exception for the import and export of accessible format copies.  This component of the treaty is intended to ensure that the conversion of a published work only needs to occur once, and that the accessible copy can subsequently be made available to those who need it anywhere around the world.  Cross-border circulation of accessible versions of works will enhance access both directly, by increasing the volume of available converted works, and also indirectly by avoiding the costs of unnecessary duplication and freeing resources for the addition of new titles to the global accessible library.  It will have particularly significant implications for blind, visually impaired and print disabled individuals in the developing world.

The adoption of the treaty was a moment of great significance for the beneficiary communities and their advocates, who have worked tirelessly to improve outcomes in this area.  The World Blind Union has expressed hope that the treaty will be an effective step toward the achievement of equality of access, while noting that work in this area is not yet complete:
In plain language, this is a Treaty that should start to remedy the book famine. It provides a crucial legal framework for adoption of national copyright exceptions in countries that lack them. It creates an international import/export regime for the exchange of accessible books across borders. It is necessary for ending the book famine, but it is not sufficient. Countries need to sign, ratify and implement its provisions. Non-profit organizations, libraries, educational institutions and government need to take advantage of these provisions to actually deliver the accessible books people with disabilities need for education, employment and full social inclusion.
Then-Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC lauded the agreement as "a landmark copyright treaty, the first of its kind in the history of the multilateral copyright system”. Curiously, despite Australia’s leadership in negotiations and proud reportage of the treaty’s adoption, it was not one of the 51 nations that signed the treaty in June and, at the time of writing, it does not appear to have subsequently signed. Vision Australia and other representative bodies of Australia’s blind, visually impaired and print disabled communities have nevertheless expressed optimism about the future impact of the treaty in Australia and are continuing to work toward signature and ratification.

Image by Diego Molano, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.

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