MPAA, US Blind Federation Urge Narrow Focus In WIPO Treaty For Blind

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The US film industry and advocates for the blind joined forces today to urge World Intellectual Property Organization negotiators to keep treaty talks focussed on the core issue of making more books available to the blind and visually impaired. The joint statement appeared to be aimed at reining in stakeholders on both sides of the international debate.

“We underscore that this important Treaty must not be a vehicle for extraneous agendas. The goal remains, as it has been since the outset, a meaningful treaty to create greater access to published works for the visually impaired,” National Federation of the Blind President Marc Maurer and MPAA Chairman and CEO Senator Chris Dodd said in a joint statement.

At issue is a treaty on exceptions and limitations for the blind and visually impaired under negotiation at WIPO. WIPO members will gather in Marrakesh from 17-28 June to conduct a diplomatic conference – final, high-level negotiations – on the treaty.

The two specified that the treaty should create exceptions and limitations to copyright law for printed materials to be converted into accessible formats and allow them to be shared across borders.

“NFB and MPAA call for the WIPO VIPT negotiators to get back to basics,” they said. “We fully support a Treaty that facilitates access to published works in the form of text, notation and/or related illustrations for the blind and print disabled to address the book famine wherein the blind and print disabled have access to less than five percent of published works worldwide.” It does not appear to apply to digital copies, nor film.

The statement called for the treaty should embody the following core principles:

“1. Support a legally-binding access Treaty which will allow more published works to be converted into accessible formats used by the blind and print disabled.
2. Allow those accessible copies to be shared across international borders.
3. Take account of countries’ level of development, in line with existing international provisions.
4. Ensure that the treaty will be fully consistent with international copyright norms.
5. Avoid addressing extraneous copyright issues not directly related to creating greater access to published works for the blind and print disabled.”

Extraneous Agendas?

As to extraneous agendas, Dodd said in a press conference call that there are “two overarching notions about copyright.” That is, some have wanted to use the treaty to further their interest in having no copyright at all, while others want to “use this vehicle to add extra protections,” he said. The goal of the treaty should not be to add or eliminate copyright protection, except to allow a very specific use, he said.

But Dodd and Maurer emphasised that the details are up to the negotiators. They should just make sure that in the end, they do not end up eroding basic international copyright law, Dodd said. Helping the blind and visually impaired is “the right thing to do,” he said.

When asked, Dodd gave some specifics, saying that the treaty “should not undermine” technological protection measures used by copyright holders to block access to works, and also should not include mention of fair use, which under US law provides exceptions for certain uses such as libraries and journalists. These issues are “inappropriate and totally irrelevant,” he said.

He stressed, however, the importance of inclusion of the three-step test, which creates a hurdle to using exceptions and limitations, as it is consistent with international norms. This has been a contentious issue in the WIPO negotiations.

In the conference call, Maurer said the concern about straying from the purpose is that some people thought countries would try to use the treaty negotiation for their own purposes, and others wanted to take the treaty in other directions. The aim in the end is to have a product that is useable and not unmanageable, he said. He tried to appease the publishers, who were also on the conference call.

“We’re not trying to take the commercial market away from the booksellers,” Maurer said. “but it cannot be so fraught with systems and checks that it is impractical” to use. He mentioned an idea that WIPO might create a system for identifying when there are books already out there for sale in a country. But there should not be so many tests that the exceptions cannot be used, he said.

The International Publishers Association (IPA) issued a press release [pdf] last month stating its support for the treaty, as long as there is a provision protecting commercial sellers who make such works available.

“The IPA, too, wants the visually impaired treaty to work in practice,” it said in a reaction statement [pdf] issued today. “The treaty must give blind and visually impaired persons around the world access to the special format copies of the books they want. We believe that treaty wording can be found that would fully address the concerns raised by the NFB and the MPAA in this statement.”

At press time, the reaction of knowledge access advocates was not clear.

Maurer told reporters that the joint statement “a tremendous move forward” toward enabling more books to be accessible to the blind and visually impaired around the world. He said he has a college and law degree and knows first-hand how difficult it is to find materials in accessible format. He also gave an anecdote that in order to help a friend obtain materials in French, Maurer had to “sneak” them out of France to the US.

There is an “urgent need” to address the problem, Maurer said, calling it a “great joy” to have the copyright holders on board.

Dodd told reporters that he has worked with the NFB often in his career, and the statement represents a “shared commitment.” “We’re calling on negotiators to get back to basics,” he said.

“Now is the time to refocus on this singular objective and cull the document of extraneous issues,” the statement said. “We call on negotiators to work together, guided by the above principles, to ensure that Marrakech is a success.”

[Correction: the original article indicated that the NFB is seeking books to be accessible at reasonable cost, but cost is not at issue as many agencies serving the blind and print-disabled throughout the world are libraries. Their focus is on access without too many burdens.]


William New may be reached at

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  1. […] The Motion Picture Association of America and the US National Federation of the Blind issued a joint statement on 30 May asking WIPO delegates “to get back to basics,” and in particular, “avoid addressing extraneous copyright issues not directly related to creating greater access to published works for the blind and print disabled” (IPW, WIPO, 30 May 2013). […]

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