/ 5 July 2013

Landmark treaty breaks down book barriers for the blind

After decades of campaigning, visually impaired people the world over will now be able to access text-based materials more easily, no matter where they live, because of a relaxation of copyright restrictions.

Last week, in Marrakech, Morocco, member states of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo) announced that they had reached agreement on the wording of the Treaty for the Blind, which aims to permit copyright exceptions on materials for visually impaired people. The exceptions allow materials to be replicated without requiring prior consent from copyright holders and shared across borders, regardless of countries' copyright laws, if they are to be used by visually impaired people. 

The treaty has now been formally adopted by the organisation. Individual countries must now ratify the treaty and amend their own laws to fall in line with the international agreement.

The World Blind Union estimates that only 5% of the one million publications produced annually is converted into accessible formats for visually impaired people, 90% of whom live in developing countries, according to the World Health Organisation. 

Visually impaired people and their advocates first began discussing the treaty in the 1980s. The Wipo negotiations began five years ago and were often contentious, with heavy lobbying from United States publishing and film industries against specific parts of the text. 

"It took five years of hard work when it could have been much quicker but people really changed their mind when they met blind people," Jamie Love, of the nongovernmental organisation Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), told IP watch, an online publication dealing with intellectual property issues. 

Hundreds of visually impaired people attended last week's discussions in Marrakech, with the blind musician Stevie Wonder playing a celebratory concert after the negotiations closed.

Writing on the KEI blog about  the agreement, Love says the treaty will improve access to materials for the visually impaired and represented "a shift in power in global negotiations on intellectual property rights. The United States and the European Union failed to block or render ineffective the treaty. Developing countries formed strong links with several independent countries like Australia, Canada, Switzerland and even Japan to move the treaty in a positive direction."

Speaking in Marrakech, the South African ambassador to Morocco, Johannes van Vollenhoven, said the treaty "seeks to address the balance between private and public interests in line with the … United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights … South Africa is embarking on the process of reviewing its copyright legislation and will accede to the treaty when all internal processes are concluded."