World Blind Union Won’t Be Sidetracked In Quest For Treaty On Reading Access

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In a significant development for ongoing copyright negotiations at the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Blind Union has distanced itself from initiatives it sees as distractions from a primary goal at the international level: To get agreement on a treaty promoting better access to reading material for visually impaired readers.

The World Blind Union (WBU) recently announced that it suspended its participation in two industry-oriented initiatives to facilitate access and cross-border distribution of works for visually impaired readers, and reaffirmed the need for an international legal instrument. The union insists on the establishment of a treaty which would lead countries to issue national copyright exceptions laws. The two initiatives are at WIPO and the European Union levels.

In a statement [pdf] released on 26 February, WBU said the World Intellectual Property Organization’s trusted intermediary global accessible resources project (TIGAR) project [pdf] was “erroneously portrayed by some organisations as an alternative to the underpinning legal framework needed to guarantee equal access to information promised under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

At stake is a potential international instrument being discussed by the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR). The TIGAR project was initiated by the WIPO stakeholders’ platform itself created by the SCCR in 2008, in order to “facilitate arrangements to secure access for disabled persons to protected works,” according to WIPO. The main problem pointed out by the WBU is the lack of accessibility of works translated in alternate formats under a copyright exception across borders.

Discussions at WIPO intensified in 2009 with Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay submitting a treaty originally proposed by the WBU, relating to limitations and exceptions. Some countries, such as the European Union and the United States have been resisting the idea of a treaty, and instead have proposed a joint recommendation without legally binding effects (IPW, WIPO, 25 May 2009).

According to WBU President Maryanne Diamond, less than five percent of published works are produced in alternate format in developed countries, compared with an average of one percent in developing countries.

“We know that some books are produced into alternate format in more than one country in the same language and often by charitable organisations who have limited resources and competing priorities as to how to use those resources,” she told Intellectual Property Watch.

The WIPO stakeholder platform was “hastily proposed by rights holder organisations two days after the WBU treaty proposal was tabled at WIPO in 2009,” she said, adding that it appears that “the stakeholder platform proposal was a tactic to try to detract attention away from the treaty,” Diamond said.

Countries opposed to the treaty have argued that the stakeholder platform would provide an expedited solution to the problem of access to protected works by visually impaired readers, as opposed to long treaty negotiations.

But Diamond said an international treaty is the only option [corrected], as it would push countries to make national exceptions which would enable alternate format books to travel from one country to another.

After analysing the proposed terms of the TIGAR pilot scheme and the stakeholder agreements more broadly, WBU “concluded that the terms would be too onerous and the cost benefits too unclear,” its release said. “This is for the larger organisations in developed countries, and the difficulties in participating in the complex agreements envisaged under TIGAR would be far greater for organisations in developing countries.”

In September, the European Blind Union and the Federation of European Publishers signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on access to works for dyslexic or visually impaired readers (IPW, IP Live, 19 September 2010).

This initiative was seeking to ensure that works converted into Braille or another accessible format become available in other EU member states through a network of trusted intermediaries.

Industry Unfazed

The International Publishers Association (IPA) said it was “saddened” to learn of the WBU decision. Jens Bammel, IPA’s secretary general said “IPA remains committed to helping print disabled readers to read. Our aspiration is that all readers be able to read books when and where they want to, and at a fair price, regardless of disability.”

He signalled that his organisation would not move from its position. “We believe that continued international cooperative efforts like these, with all parties willing to look beyond their organisations’ near term interests, are essential to achieving our shared goal,” he said in a press release.

According to the release [pdf], the IPA understands “that the unilateral suspension of collaboration by the World Blind Union is temporary.”

The International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations (IFRRO), which represents copyright licensing groups and others, said it regretted the decision of the WBU to the WIPO and EU discussions “which have shown every prospect of delivering timely solutions for the reading impaired community,” said IFRRO in a release.

“IFRRO is strongly committed to the solutions worked out by the stakeholders together and to continuing the dialogue with representatives from the reading impairment communities,” he said.

Fighting the “Book Famine”

In an interview published by Knowledge Ecology International, David Hammerstein, former member of the European Parliament from Spain, said European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Michel Barnier is in favour of voluntary measures and “soft law” to solve the “book famine” suffered by millions of visually impaired persons.

However, Hammerstein highlighted a possible inconsistency in Barnier accepting only soft law to help persons with disabilities to access books and a strong position in favour of legally binding treaties for copyright enforcement, such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

He said EU publishers have heavily lobbied the European Parliament against the treaty, and the European Commission was ignoring the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which it has signed. He said France was resisting the treaty the most, with the United Kingdom and Scandinavian countries having a more flexible attitude.

The staunch opposition to the treaty by the EU is more ideological than economical, according to Hammerstein.

At the last WIPO SCCR, in November, members agreed on a work programme, which stipulates three extra working days for the next three meetings of the SCCR to be dedicated to discussions on limitations and exceptions to copyright law (IPW, WIPO, 15 November 2010).

The fourth interim report of the stakeholders’ platform describing the outcome of the fifth meeting of the platform in New Delhi in October, is available here [pdf].

Catherine Saez may be reached at

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  1. says

    There is an old Lily Tomlin comedy sketch which ends:

    “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.”

    Mr. Hammerstein says in the referenced interview at Answer 7:

    “It is difficult to counter the arguments of the industry-EU-US coalition against the Treaty because they simply present no arguments.”

    I guess that’s the whole point: They don’t *have* to have an argument… The Treaty has so many variables and definitions that they can just sit back and do nothing and accomplish their purpose.

    It is my opinion that the only way to pressure the above mentioned coalition into negotiating toward a workable Treaty is to make use — absent any Treaty — of the existing Copyright Law exceptions of many countries for Braille and alternative formats and their export/import to their fullest potential … and therefore put those against a binding Copyright Treaty on the offensive for a change.


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