July 25, 2012

Government won’t support international copyright treaty to benefit the blind


In the wake of an influx of new reading formats, from graphic novels to tablets, it’s often forgotten that access to books has not improved for the blind. This is despite significant technological advances from which they could potentially benefit, such a new braille technology and audiobooks.

This week in Geneva, the United States is being urged to back a treaty that would allow blind people to access copyrighted works. The treaty would make it obligatory for countries to allow copyrighted works to be converted into an accessible format for people with visual and reading disabilities worldwide, without needing the permission of the copyright holder. A process which is currently slow and cumbersome.

It’s becoming clear, however, that the Obama administration will block parts of the treaty, says  Zach Carter on the Huffington Post.

“Nonprofit organizations representing the interests of the blind say the American delegation has been effective in negotiating substantive provisions in the pact that would help people living with disabilities. But they say the U.S. is balking at efforts to make those provisions part of a binding international treaty. Instead, the U.S. is seeking a non-binding slate of policy recommendations, which advocates for the blind worry would not effectively remove barriers to educational reading materials that are currently in place.”

The reason such a treaty would be groundbreaking is that,

“Media that are accessible to the blind, like Braille works and audiobooks, are far more costly to create and distribute than traditional print publications, and feature a much smaller market. Many nations have specific copyright exceptions protecting such works, exempting their producers from having to pay costly royalties to publishers. But poor countries still have very limited resources to produce works for the blind, and thus have extremely limited libraries. An international treaty would make it easier for wealthier nations, like the United States, to share works with other countries.”

This is not to say that the administration is blindly blocking something with such clear benefit. As expected of a country protecting their business interests, they are opposing a binding treaty because to do so would potentially create a precedent for similar exceptions and limitations to the rights of copyright owners in other areas.

Nevertheless, negotiations for this treaty began in 1981, achingly slow for anyone who cannot read visually to benefit from freer access to the knowledge and entertainment that books supply.

As Pranesh Prakash, a lawyer at the Center for Internet and Society, is quoted in the Washington Post as saying,

“The vast majority of visually disabled people live in poor, developing countries where very little money is spent on converting books into accessible formats, while they are much more readily available elsewhere…The treaty would end the book famine that they currently face.


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.