Hollywood lobbies US to weaken treaty to help the blind

Negotiators from 186 countries are in Marrakech this week trying to hammer out the text of an international treaty that aims to make copyrighted works more readily available to the world's blind and visually impaired people, 90% of whom live in the global south.

Observers said the treaty, which has been in the works at the World Intellectual Property Organisation since 2008, was likely to be finalised before the end of this week.

But the scope of the treaty, which seeks to lift copyright restrictions on published works in the interests of blind people, has come under intense pressure from one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States: Hollywood.

"The Obama administration has an extremely intimate relationship with the motion picture ­industry with regard to these negotiations," said James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit organisation with offices in Washington and Geneva.

Love was the force behind a recent freedom of information request that revealed extensive communication between the film industry and the US Patent and Trademark Office, which has been leading the US delegation in the treaty talks.

The request revealed "142 pages of emails [over] just a couple of months' period, and that was just with one agency of the government", Love said. The film industry was "trying to micromanage the US government's position on a treaty involving blind people", he added.

Advice on the treaty language
Representatives of the industry hired lawyers to offer advice on the treaty language, which was passed on to the US Patent and Trademark Office, as evidenced in the emails.

In one message from February, Justin Hughes, the lead US negotiator, asked whether one of those hired lawyers might "have any views on [a controversial subject] that you might solicit and we might use to counter [other countries' positions]?"

Copyrighted audiovisual works, such as films and slideshow presentations, are not even going to be covered by the treaty, which is limited to print works.

Among the groups shown to be in active communication with the US government are Paramount Pictures, Time Warner, Warner Brothers and, most of all, the Motion Picture Association, which represents Hollywood interests.

Ruth Okediji, an intellectual property professor who is representing Nigeria in the negotiations, stressed the importance of including usable copyright exceptions in the text of the treaty.

"Even though there are rules in the copyright system that help strike a balance between rights holders and the public, those rules are not sufficient to address the needs of the blind," said Okediji, who admitted she was "surprised" and "disappointed" to discover the extent to which the film industry was lobbying for a weaker treaty. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

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