No Decision On WIPO Treaty For Blind Persons Misses ‘Golden Opportunity’Published on 26 June 2010 @ 12:32 am
By Catherine Saez, Intellectual Property Watch
Member states at the World Intellectual Property Organization late Thursday night were unable to reach agreement on a draft chair’s conclusions text summarising a four-day WIPO copyright committee meeting, crashing the prospect of swift progress on improving international access to literary material for the visually impaired.
“A golden opportunity was bashed,” said Christopher Friend of Sightsavers International.
In an unusual procedure, the 21-24 June WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) had to adjourn its session without approval, specifically on three paragraphs of the draft conclusions.
This session of the SCCR was expected by many to open the way to an international agreement on copyright exceptions and limitations for the visually impaired. The meeting also addressed the protection of broadcasting organisations and the protection of audiovisual performances.
The most debated issue of this session of the SCCR was copyright exceptions and limitations, with four proposals submitted by delegations (IPW, WIPO, 22 June 2010). Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Mexico suggested the adoption of an international treaty to facilitate access for the visually impaired persons (based on a World Blind Union proposal), the African Group proposal offered a broader perspective, the United States proposed a “draft consensus instrument,” and the European Union has suggested a draft joint recommendation.
This profusion of proposals was taken by participants as a sign of heightened interest in the issue and recognition of the need for exceptions and limitations for visually impaired persons, a subject already debated at length in previous SCCR sessions. Most countries have recognised the need for an international legal instrument, according to sources.
The African Group, which has long expressed interest in including broader exceptions and limitations, this week submitted a proposal including exceptions and limitations for education and research institutions, libraries, and archive centres.
A member of the African Group told Intellectual Property Watch that their proposal reflected what they had stated in previous sessions in which they had called for a holistic approach to the access problem, not limited to the visually impaired, but working towards facilitating broader access to knowledge in developing countries.
Proponents of the original proposal to move first on a treaty for reading disabled persons have argued that this does not preclude also negotiating on other limitations and exceptions afterward.
With four proposals based on different approaches to tackle, country delegates tried to find solutions to include all aspects described in the proposals. According to sources, some countries proposed to line up all proposals in a comparative exercise. The World Blind Union and Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) provided a comparative table on 23 June.
In negotiations, views diverged on which type of instrument best suits the problem of limited access to print material for the visually impaired. Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Mexico, and the African Group, have asked for a treaty, while others, such as the Group B developed countries would prefer a simple recommendation of the WIPO committee.
A member of the US delegation told Intellectual Property Watch that the United States thought the fastest way to produce changes was to adopt a joint recommendation, but that its position was without prejudice to a prospective treaty.
Advocates for the visually impaired strongly favour a legally binding instrument with a firm timeframe.
The EU and US proposals contain the concept of trusted intermediaries, entities that would need the approval of the right holders and visually impaired representatives to be able to import or export special format copies of works, according to the EU and US proposals. A Group B member told Intellectual Property Watch that the issue of cross-border shipments and the trusted intermediary were considered as key points.
Treaty advocates raised concern that this obligation to link the trusted intermediary requirement to the ability to import or export special format copies could limit the scope of copyright limitations and exceptions,
According to a member of the International Publishers Association, the international lawful exchange of digital copies is at the heart of the publishers’ business. The idea that works will arrive first under a copyright exemption before the authors and publishers enter the export market “is without precedent,” he told Intellectual Property Watch. This is rushing ahead of the market, he said.
But special format copies are not comparable to a regular edition of a work, said David Hammerstein of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, as audio versions are fast mechanical computerised voice almost unusable to untrained ears. “This is a flexing of muscles of publishers,” he said, “who want to show their dominant position.”
Late Night Disappointment
Although the session started at a high pace and the spirit of participants seemed geared toward finding a workable agreement, the last day came as a dissonant note.
The difficulty appeared to arise in aggregating the contents of the four proposals on the table. Veteran Chair Jukka Liedes of Finland submitted some draft conclusions that were discussed well into the night without success. Liedes also presided over efforts earlier in the decade to negotiate a treaty on broadcasters’ rights which collapsed in 2007.
At the heart of the lengthiest discussions this week was paragraph 19 of the conclusions on exceptions and limitations. The paragraph requested the WIPO secretariat to prepare a comparative table of the four proposals and organise informal consultations in Geneva. It also stated that exceptions and limitations for visually impaired persons as well as for educational and research institutions, libraries and archives would be pursued following a global and inclusive agenda.
A number of countries took the floor to ask modifications to the paragraph, with the US submitting a first proposed change, later followed by a second one. None met a consensus and the African Group then introduced yet another proposed change that failed to satisfy the assembly. Concerns arising from the tentative documents were based on the fact that the comparative table should not be analytical, that there should be a differentiation in importance and in maturity between the visually impaired access issue and the other issues, while the African Group insisted that a holistic approach encompassing all issues was necessary.
“The African Group should not hold blind people hostage to any other agenda,” KEI President James Love told Intellectual Property Watch afterward. “There were endless opportunities to establish a work program on education. Linking everything to disabilities was strategically, politically and morally wrong.”
“This is a disgrace for a United Nations meeting of this calibre to end like this,” said Christopher Friend of Sightsavers International. Without conclusions, everything is frozen, he said, adding, “We will have to start from scratch in November.”
Blind delegations came from around the world for a session most of them thought would be decisive, he said. The bright hope that was lit by the engagement of member states the first two days the issue was discussed was destroyed.
On 22 June, a string of non-governmental organisations presented their statements to the delegates. Among them were the World Blind Union (WBU) as well as many national blind federations, the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, the Association of American Publishers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Electronic Information for Libraries. Over 70 NGOs registered for this session of the SCCR, with approximately 50 taking the floor, according to WIPO.
The 50 interventions reflected a wide array of positions echoing discussions between WIPO member countries delegations, while informal corridor talks between delegates grew in intensity as the end of the session approached.
The chair called the meeting to an end in the face of the impossible conciliation of views on paragraph 19, but also on paragraphs 3 and 4 on the protection of broadcasting organisations.
The next meeting of the SCCR is scheduled to take place from 8-12 November.
Catherine Saez may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.