Parallel WIPO Initiative On Access For Visually Impaired Steps Up

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A growing number of countries are signing the new World Intellectual Property Organization treaty on copyright exceptions aimed at boosting access to special format books for visually impaired persons. Parallel to the treaty and pre-dating it, a WIPO-led initiative of interested stakeholders is continuing its efforts to also boost access to such works, including through licence agreements.

The parallel initiative, referred to as the “stakeholders’ platform,” is taking a new name and has renewed ambitions.

The latest meeting of the stakeholders’ platform in mid-February was aimed at moving the project forward, taking it from a pilot project to a full-fledged operational project, according to sources. All stakeholders agreed to recommend the establishment of a new operational structure to be called the “Accessible Books Consortium (ABC),” the sources said.

The structure is expected to be presented to the next WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) meeting planned for April.

The ABC is proposed to have a Board with: five representatives of visually impaired people including one seat reserved for the World Blind Union (WBU), five representatives of rights holders including one seat for authors, and up to five representatives of donors who have given more than CH 200,000 (about US$ 225,000) to the ABC, according to a source. The director general of WIPO or his authorised representative would sit as an ex-officio member and would act as chair, the source said.

In June 2013, WIPO members adopted the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled was adopted. It followed discussions in the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR). The treaty has been signed by 60 countries [pdf] but will only enter into force after 20 countries have ratified it.

Alongside the treaty discussions, a separate WIPO-developed Visually Impaired Persons platform (Vision IP) was established to work on “practical measures to facilitate global access to works in audio, braille and large print,” according to WIPO’s website. The Vision IP project, which has been commonly referred to the stakeholders’ platform, brings together key stakeholders, such as representatives of the visually impaired like the WBU, representatives of the rights holders community such as the International Publishers Association (IPA), and WIPO.

The Vision IP project is one of several multistakeholder platforms at WIPO; the others are WIPO Green, connecting owners of new environmental technologies with those looking to commercialise, licence or distribute them, and WIPO Re:Search, which provides a database of available IP assets on pharmaceutical compounds, technologies, and data available for research and development for neglected tropical diseases.

Three Areas of Action

According to David Uwemedimo, director of the Copyright Infrastructure Division at WIPO, “the summary of what we are trying to do [in Vision IP] is ‘the fruits of copyright for all’.”

“As an international intellectual property organisation,” he said, “our starting point is that IP is important and copyright is important, but there are certain cases in which there are worthy causes and the cause of the print disabled community is a worthy cause.”

Vision IP is a complement to the Marrakesh treaty and effectively involves three areas of activity, he said. “It constitutes one possible initiative, amongst others, to implement the objectives of the Marrakesh Treaty at a practical level.”

The first activity is the Trusted Intermediary Global Accessible Resources (TIGAR) project. “It is an attempt to put into place practical arrangements for ensuring that a visually impaired person in one territory of the world can have access to copyrighted texts emanating from an another territory. Those practical arrangements involve the creation of a very good database which contains a list of material in accessible formats that is available for exploitation,” Uwemedimo told Intellectual Property Watch.

According to Uwemedimo, in this period leading up to the Marrakesh Treaty implementation, the TIGAR project has to work with a mixture of various mechanisms, the first of which is exceptions and limitations in national legislation, and another is through licensing arrangements with publishers, he said.

“Many copyright owners see the advantage of visually impaired persons having access to their material and are willingly granting licences for the use of their work,” he added.

The model of the TIGAR project for the moment is business-to-business, he clarified. It includes some 224,000 searchable titles. The database is a list of works that have been made available in accessible format. Their availability is conditioned by licensing agreements. TIGAR is only a pilot project and the aim is to expand it and to increase licensing arrangements before the Marrakesh Treaty is implemented.

The TIGAR project was conducted in a way which respects the rights of the copyright owners, as well as the exceptions and limitations to copyright, Uwemedimo specified. The involvement of the rights holders in this project is important, as is the representatives of visually impaired persons, he said.

Inclusive Publishing

The second activity is “inclusive publishing”. The idea is to make copyrighted literary works available in an accessible format, at the same time as the initial publishing. In this way, works are “born accessible,” according to Uwemedimo. The activity also includes the development of an international standard for special format works, like EPUB3, he said.

According to Jens Bammel, secretary general of the IPA, inclusive publishing is about making e-books increasingly accessible so that they can be used by more and more persons with disability.

“Only a small percentage of persons with print disability are blind, while the vast majority of print disabled people have low vision or are dyslexic, and a good e-book reader can allow manipulations that can help many, many people within that spectrum of disabilities, for example by increasing the font size or colour or text to speech,” he told Intellectual Property Watch.

“Accessibility is fostered by different initiatives brought forward by publishers and also by technology providers,” Bammel said. “The one furthest ahead is Apple. Every Apple iPad and iPhone now can deliver text to speech in a variety of languages, out of the box.”

“It remains that publishers have to build in the features in their e-books to make them easier to navigate, easier to use for people with print disability.” he said. “But this is not a question of legislation but a question of motivation. That is why it is important to work together.”

Capacity Building

The third activity is capacity building in the developing world. “An important part of our work is to try to build the capacity of local communities to facilitate cross-border transfer,” Uwemedimo said. “We have to make sure they have the capacity and the infrastructure for this to happen.”

Developing countries have to be accommodated, and publishers are positively engaging with them, Bammel said. “I don’t know any publisher who is charging any money for its collaboration with print disability organisations.”

Capacity building is key, at different levels, he said. If a charity is in place, capacity needs to be created. But the books that people need the most are school books and those are local books. Capacity has to be created in the local charity or in the local publishing industry, he explained.

There also is capacity building for governments, so that they have a better grasp of the issues and different policies. And there is a need to develop the capacity of collaboration of all stakeholders and this project is very much part of that, he added.

WIPO has a unique position to support developing countries, find out what the capacity-building issues are and ways to address them, Bammel said.

For Dan Pescod of the WBU, the issue is “how to better focus capacity building where the resources we have will do the most good.”

Publishers, Visually Impaired Committed – but Latter Cautious

According to Bammel, the publishing industry has been fully involved and fully supportive of the stakeholders’ platform and will continue to be equally supportive and involved in the ABC.

The issue of equal access is not going to be solved only through exceptions to copyright and needs a multi-pronged approach, the publishers’ representative said. The platform is going to be complementary to the treaty, he told Intellectual Property Watch.

The WBU left the platform in 2011 because it felt that the platform was considered by some as an alternative to a treaty, and was sidetracking the discussions at the SCCR. But the WBU returned after the Marrakesh Treaty was adopted.

Pescod said, “[T]he WBU remains concerned to ensure that the ratification and implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty is not undermined by the ABC.”

A concern of the WBU was the need to work with collective licences rather than on a title-by-title permissions basis. According to Bammel, title-by-title permission is inefficient. “Collective licensing is one of the solutions, but getting permission is not the most difficult task about getting accessible copies,” he said.

“If you want to obtain work at the same time and at the same place, you either have to teach publishers to convert themselves or you do it yourself, but you don’t convert from the paper copy, because it is a cumbersome process,” Bammel concluded. “It is much more efficient to get a digital copy from the publisher in a format easily convertible. This is why collaboration is so important.”

“It remains to be seen,” said Pescod, “whether the rights holder community will be willing and able to provide blanket collective licenses on a widespread basis so that the TIGAR project can now shift up a gear and really deliver a Global Accessible Library.”


Catherine Saez may be reached at

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