WIPO Assembly Moves To Fast-Track Copyright Exceptions For Visually Impaired

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The majority of member states of the 185-strong World Intellectual Property Organization have thrown their support behind the fast-tracked negotiation of a new treaty or other instrument that sets limitations and exceptions to copyright for the benefit of the visually-impaired and those with print disabilities.

Members at the fourth day of the 1-9 October WIPO General Assembly approved the 2013 schedule for a diplomatic conference (high-level treaty negotiation) on the instrument proposed by the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR).

A diplomatic conference is the highest level of negotiations at WIPO.

Reporting to the Assembly, an official [corrected] said “significant progress” has been made toward the conclusion of the agreement, and with sufficient work done for the UN agency to meet the 2013 deadline for the high-level meeting.

The phrase “visually impaired persons and persons with print disabilities” is the catch-all term used by WIPO to cover “persons who have limited vision and those who have print disabilities, or have other disabilities,” according to a draft text [pdf] of the treaty that was presented to the committee during a meeting in July.

The same draft text noted that the agreement would take into account the three-step test for limitations and exceptions, provided under Article 9(2) of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works – the landmark international agreement on copyright.

WIPO will hold an intersessional meeting on the proposed agreement from 17-19 October, to be followed by negotiations at the next SCCR meeting from 19-23 November. An extraordinary General Assembly is scheduled in December.

The United States, speaking for Group B, the cluster of high-income countries, expressed support and commitment to the swift timetable, but noted that “more work is needed.”

The same commitment for a 2013 diplomatic conference is shared by Hungary, which spoke for the Central Europe and Baltic states, Thailand, Colombia, Brazil, which spoke on behalf of the Development Agenda Group (DAG), Japan, Iran, India, and Trinidad and Tobago, to name a few.

Nigeria, which delivered a statement for the African Group, noted that the treaty would have a significant impact on the region as Africa, along with the rest of developing economies, is home to the majority of the world’s visually impaired and persons with print disabilities.

With this, the African Group reminded the assembly that “any imbalanced outcome should not be accepted.”

Member states at the assembly also expressed support for the proposed approaches to agreements concerning the rights of broadcasting organisations, as well as limitations and exceptions for libraries and archives, and education.

On broadcasting and cablecasting, members approved work limited to a “signal-based approach.”

NGOs: Mixed Reactions

During the week, non-governmental observers have raised caution from various sides of the copyright issues, particularly on the treaty for the blind.

A wide range of about 20 industry groups issued a joint statement [pdf] on the instrument calling on member states to subject their support for a possible instrument to “essential conditions” they said are required to ensure access to books in line with the existing international copyright framework.

The groups demanded that the instrument be consistent with international copyright law; narrow in scope; reaffirming the three-step test; flexible; conditional upon commercial unavailability; and ensuring appropriate care of digital files.

The three-step test loosely speaking narrows the use of copyright exceptions.

The joint statement was presented to the Assembly by the International Publishers Association, along with the International Federation of Film Producers’ Associations (FIAPF), the International Video Federation (IVF), and the Motion Picture Association (MPA).

Among the other groups signing on were the International Confederation of Authors and Composers Societies (CISAC), the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations (IFRRO), the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

“[W]e call upon Member States to focus on the clearly defined needs of persons with print disabilities, but not to let the exceptional circumstances of this particular issue redefine the basic principles of copyright,” the statement says.

IPA said today that the reality “outside this room” is that creating equal access at the same time requires working with copyright holders and libraries. A film industry representative said copyright stands shoulder to shoulder with development, and that the direction the work of the WIPO copyright committee is going, i.e., promoting limitations and exceptions without an equal discussion of the impact on copyright, is an additional burden on rights holders already harmed by piracy. He called for negotiators to find practical solutions rather than further complicating the lives of copyright holders.

Rights holders said they could accept protection of broadcasters’ rights as long as it does not affect the copyright system.

Knowledge Ecology International, meanwhile, raised questions about calls for the three-step test, arguing that it was not binding on all other Berne exceptions and that it is not a general provision that can be used in cases where a particular exception is not provided. KEI later raised concerns about the broadcasting treaty, asking for a better explanation of what problem it would address, and saying it would add another layer of rights.

The Internet Society said the committee needs to take into account the digital revolution and urged adoption of the various limitations and exceptions. But he raised concern about pursuing the broadcasting treaty.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) said broadcasting should not take up time on the agenda until the visually impaired treaty is finished, and raised doubt about the need for the broadcasting treaty at all. Signals are not electronic, are transient, cannot exist in fixed form, and the programme is what is fixed and it is “already owned by someone else.”

He said that if the SCCR cannot agree on such an obvious instrument as the visually impaired treaty, then the system is “damaged.” The text is becoming too complicated, CCIA said, and that the members should not be telling blind people what they need. Rather they should ask the visually impaired. “They are here, they can tell us what they need,” he said.

As to what the World Blind Union want, their representative told the Assembly that he is “cautiously encouraged” by the map for the treaty initiative. He reinforced an African Group argument that any treaty must be suited to the needs of the visually impaired in all levels of development around the world, and therefore must include printed books, not just digital. It must not only be for the PhDs in developed countries, he said. The treaty must not strangle provisions with heavy technology restrictions.

“Visually impaired persons and the print disabled still look forward to their first Independence Day” when the WIPO treaty allows accessible formats into their hands from across borders,” he said, noting that there are 280 million visually impaired people worldwide who could benefit from this initiative.

“Please, please, WIPO, help us to turn that expectation (of a 2013 diplomatic conference) into reality,” the World Blind Union representative said. “Protect us from another shattered expectation as we had in 1985.”

Maricel Estavillo may be reached at maricelestavillo@gmail.com.

William New may be reached at wnew@ip-watch.ch.

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  1. [...] [Maricel Estavillo and William New for IP Watch] The majority of member states of the 185-strong World Intellectual Property Organization have thrown their support behind the fast-tracked negotiation of a new treaty or other instrument that sets limitations and exceptions to copyright for the benefit of the visually-impaired and those with print disabilities.  Members at the fourth day of the 1-9 October WIPO General Assembly approved the 2013 schedule for a diplomatic conference (high-level treaty negotiation) on the instrument proposed by the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR). A diplomatic conference is the highest level of negotiations at WIPO. Click here for more. [...]

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