Good Intentions Echo In Marrakesh At Start Of Negotiations On Treaty For The Blind

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The World Intellectual Property Organization diplomatic conference expected to yield a treaty creating exceptions and limitations to copyright for the benefit of visually impaired people opened today in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Assurances of good faith and willingness to find solutions for remaining issues were given by delegates, while WIPO Director General Francis Gurry called for unity, King Mohammed VI talked about moral obligation in a royal message, and visually impaired people called for negotiators to create history. All nonetheless agreed on the importance of the copyright system.

The “Diplomatic Conference to conclude a Treaty to facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities” is taking place from 17-28 June in Marrakesh.

In his opening statement, Gurry said the objective of the diplomatic conference “is relatively simple and straightforward.” It is to alleviate the “book famine” affecting visually impaired and print-disabled people.

He cited Helen Keller, saying at la Sorbonne, in Paris in 1952, during the centennial celebration of Louis Braille’s birth, “like a magic wand, the six dots of Louis Braille have resulted in schools where embossed books, like vessels, can transport us to ports of education, libraries and all the means of expression that assure our independence.”

The aim of the diplomatic conference, Gurry said, is to establish an enabling legal framework that will empower that magic wand.

“We arrive in Marrakesh with a political consensus on the part of the international community to accomplish that objective,” he said, “a consensus that was already expressed in the decision to convene this diplomatic conference, but as we all know, much work needs to be done to translate that objective into a practical workable framework.”

“That framework will of course operate in the reality of a global marketplace in which an increasing number of works are published in digital format,” he said, and added that the global digital market place “brings with it the advantage of vastly improved availability of cultural works and the disadvantage of the vastly increased vulnerability of those digital assets to misappropriation.”

On the work of the delegates this week, he said, “The negotiators have the task on the one hand of designing a workable system that will ensure that accessible formats can be produced and exchanged across borders around the world in a simple and easy manner, and on the other hand, of providing assurances to authors and publishers that that system will not expose their assets to misuse in parallel markets that are not intended to serve the visually impaired and the print disabled.” Finding the right balance will ensure the success of the treaty, he said.

“A successful Marrakesh treaty will not only deliver a long-awaited benefit to visually impaired people and print disabled, but also demonstrate that the multilateral system is capable of overcoming the challenges of diversity of interests and disparity of circumstances to unite around a clearly defined objective,” he concluded, calling delegates to renew the spirit of Beijing where last year they concluded the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances.

Mustapha Khalfi, the Moroccan Minister of Communication who was elected President of the diplomatic conference, delivered a long message from King Mohamed VI (French version).

The message underlined the fact that the future treaty would be the first WIPO treaty establishing exceptions and limitations to copyright, and the first of its kind. King Mohamed VI, in his message, called it a “historical initiative.”

He also said that Morocco has made the rights of handicapped people part of its 2011 constitution. The international community, and WIPO members, the message said, have a moral obligation to lift all the barriers that limit access to culture, science, new technology, and information and communication for visually impaired people.

Blind People Insist on Usable Treaty, Offer Advice

Maryanne Diamond, immediate past president of the World Blind Union (WBU) said in her opening statement “We have been working hard towards this most important day for more than 30 years.”

“This treaty can make a huge difference in the lives of our members. Access to education, employment, culture and recreational reading means people have choices, without these choices people are marginalised and for many that means they do not take their rightful place in their communities,” Diamond said, adding “Please remember the right to information is a human right.”

“We cannot accept a treaty which has no substance nor can we accept a treaty that is full of bureaucratic and cumbersome requirements,” she insisted. “We cannot accept a trophy treaty that will not work in practice.”

“When considering your proposals, changes and amendments to the text, please stop and think of what that change means on the ground to the people this treaty is about,” she pleaded with delegates, encouraging them to seek advice from the WBU “if you are not sure what the impact of a text change that you are considering will be on the ground.”

“You have a chance to create history and to really do some good in the world for an often marginalised part of humanity. Please seize it with both hands and help us write a new chapter in the story of the inclusion of blind people in society,” she beseeched.

Countries Call for Flexibility, Compromise

Coordinators for the regional groups of WIPO delivering opening statements displayed good will to find necessary mutual compromise to breach remaining issues, and called for flexibility.

Algeria on behalf of the African Group said this treaty was an opportunity to take bold measures to reach a more balanced intellectual property system. The delegate said the link between the international IP system and the effort of the international community in favour of human rights had never been so direct. The African Group, he said, recognises the importance of the international copyright system and the treaty is not calling this into question.

The African continent as place of culture is an avid user of the copyright system, he said, and called for mutual compromise to solve “the grey area” of the text.

Belgium, on behalf of the Group B of developed countries, said the diplomatic conference should result in a clear legal framework to facilitate access for visually impaired people and provide solutions for the specific needs of those people but also be mindful of the effective protection of the rights of creators.

The Dominican Republic, on behalf of the Group of Countries of Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC), said GRULAC first introduced the issue of access for visually impaired people on the agenda of the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) in 2004. The delegate encouraged countries to find points of convergence to accommodate differences in order to adopt the treaty.


Catherine Saez may be reached at

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