Publishers Seek Support For Their Approach To WIPO Treaty

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As the World Intellectual Property Organization prepares to hold an Extraordinary General Assembly this week to decide on convening a high-level meeting to negotiate a new treaty on limitations and exceptions for blind and other visually impaired people, publishers are defending their position.

In particular, they are adamant that the exceptions and limitations should be subject to commercial unavailability. Developing countries, in particular African countries, have said that this clause would diminish the value of the would-be treaty in particular because it would impose a burden on associations working with visually impaired people.

Interviewed by Intellectual Property Watch, Jens Bammel, secretary general of the International Publishers Association in Geneva, said, “Our view is that every person who is print disabled should have equal access to content.”

“It would be a defeat for the instrument if it did not actually lead to massively improved access,” he said.

In the current draft text, entities authorised through the terms of the treaty to provide accessible format works would have to make sure that commercially available formats of those works are not already accessible to visually impaired people on the national market.

According to Bammel, the concerns about the inclusion of commercial availability in the treaty are acknowledged, but solvable. The first question is to know how authorised entities find out whether something is available in another country, he said. The same “discovery tools” used to search for available works could be used to gather information on the commercial availability of those works, he added.

“Nobody has an interest in burdening anybody with a difficult search and discovery exercise,” he said. The wording of the instrument should not create a further burden, he added, but at the same time there should be a recognition and an incentive for the publishers to make works accessible directly themselves.

“Exceptions for formats of works, such as hardcopy Braille, that are exclusively useful for persons with print disability are a marginal issue. That is of little concern to publishers,” Bammel said. “Publishers would have no concern to see these kinds of formats circulate more widely and for free.”

However, “at the heart of the debate are digital universally accessible files and e-books,” he said, because they have features that make them “fully accessible through eyes, ears and touch.”

“They have a commercial value and access to them is attractive for anyone.” he said.

Publishers Not Charging for Accessible Works

“I am not aware of a single publisher who charges for books or digital files they provide to organisations serving persons with print disability,” Bammel said.

He referred to Bookshare, a non-profit organisation distributing accessible books to visually impaired people or the WIPO Trusted Intermediary Global Accessible Resources Project (TIGAR) aiming at enabling “publishers to make their titles easily available to trusted intermediaries,” according to WIPO. (Note: The World Blind Union has suspended its participation in the project since March 2011. This decision will be reconsidered after the General Assembly, according to a WBU source).

On the other hand, he said, “We are aware that charities have to find a way of financing the international exchange, because it is quite clear there will be some charities which will be net importers and some which will be net exporters.” Net exporters will have to find a way to recover their costs for providing works, he said.

On the issue of cost, in practice, “it is not going to be the publishers who are going to be charging ‘greedy amounts’. There is a strange image of publishers being painted as being greedy evil people wanting to take money from visually impaired organisations, but there is no evidence in reality for that.”

“I know of many charities who cannot afford any extra payments, but equally, we are creating an international instrument here,” he said, adding that charities in developed countries recognise that as they exchange works among themselves, there will be “some kind of compensation.”

“Why should a United States charity not pay anything for a book when it gets it from a United Kingdom or a Canadian charity which have invested a lot of money in its conversion?” he asked. The issue of excessive charges is not relevant as, based on the experience so far, nobody is going to charge libraries from developing countries, neither the visually impaired organisations, nor the publishers, he said.

Commercial Availability Incentive, WIPO Plenary Room Away from Reality

Bammel had some suggestions for negotiators this week at WIPO. “Right now, just at the moment where right holders, publishers and authors can finally do what the visually impaired have always wanted us to do, i.e., to be treated like anybody else, the instrument is threatening to weaken this opportunity,” he said.

“Our ability to serve these readers directly is epitomised in the words ‘commercial availability’,” he said. “If commercial availability was to be out of the instrument, that would disincentivise publishers to provide these formats.”

“We want our efforts and progress to be acknowledged and encouraged,” he said.

“In practice people really underestimate the amount of collaboration and good will on all sides, from right holders and libraries serving persons with print disabilities,” he said.

“There are a lot of things that are happening outside of the WIPO discussions and the only place where the great collaboration and progress we are making is not being acknowledged is in the instrument, and, it appears to me at times, in the WIPO SCCR plenary,” he said.

Bammel said he hoped WIPO delegates would involve the World Blind Union and rights holders together to discuss these technical issues, such as commercial availability,” he said. “The practical world really looks very different from the image some delegates may have,” he added.

The instrument being discussed is for the entire world and should serve visually impaired in the developed and developing countries so it should be flexible enough to address different circumstances in different areas, he said.

Catherine Saez may be reached at

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