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A “tax on accessible books”: mixed emotions at Marrakesh Treaty progress

The latest agreement in the process of implementing the Marrakesh Treaty, which aims to help end the ‘book famine’ faced by blind and visually impaired people, has been met with a mixture of praise and frustration.

The treaty aims to increase the availability of books in accessible formats, such as Braille and e-books, by relaxing copyright laws which make it difficult or time-consuming to share accessible books across different countries (read e-Access Bulletin’s previous coverage of the Marrakesh Treaty at the following link: http://eab.li/6j ).

Work on implementing the Treaty has been taking place since its initial adoption in 2013, and earlier this month another milestone was reached with an agreement between the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of the European Union.

The latest agreement on the text of the Treaty – currently still in draft form – states that accessible format books for use by blind and visually impaired persons can be shared across countries – as originally planned – and that further accessible book versions can be produced without needing to ask permission from the book’s copyright holder.

This initially seemed like a cause for celebration by the many organisations that have been campaigning for increased accessible book access. However, one aspect of the agreement has proved a cause for concern. Part of the agreement is a compromise, whereby EU member state countries can choose to ask for financial ‘compensation’ from organisations and libraries that distribute accessible books, in order to protect the interests of those that hold the copyright to the book.

One of many organisations unhappy at this aspect of the Treaty is the European Blind Union (EBU). David Hammerstein, EU advocate for the World Blind Union (the EBU is one of six regional bodies of the World Blind Union), told e-Access Bulletin that although the EBU is happy with the main agreement, which represents “an important step toward ending the ‘book famine’” faced by visually impaired people, the EBU “actively opposes” the compensation element, labelling it a “tax on accessible books”.

Explaining the compensation aspect, Hammerstein said: “It increases costs for blind persons’ organisations and creates legal uncertainty for cross-border exchange, because book providers need to know the law in other countries. It also means that there will be no unified, harmonised rule in the European Union, creating confusion and complexity. It is false to call [this aspect] ‘compensation schemes’, because there is no economic loss to be compensated and governments have never shown any substantial damage done to publishers by accessible formatted works.”

These ‘compensation schemes’ are optional, and countries do not have to use them, but Hammerstein said that a number of EU member states have already announced their decision to try and use them.

To apply the compensation element, the Treaty says that there must be proof that distributing accessible format versions of a book causes more than “minimal damage” to the book’s rightsholder. In a press release on the decision, the EBU state that they will fight compensation schemes which do not present this proof: “[If this happens] we shall take legal action against member states for violation of this Directive and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

A joint statement by the International Federation of Library Associations and the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations also opposes the compensation schemes, calling it a “major mistake”. The statement claims that, “Such schemes will reduce the ability of libraries and charities to serve print disabled people … It cynically disregards broader social and human rights objectives and does specific damage to the interests of print-disabled people and the institutions that serve them.”

In order for these measures to be enforced, the European Parliament must approve this latest Treaty agreement in a plenary session. EU member states then have 12 months to “transpose the legislation into their laws,” Hammerstein said. Additionally, “the Council of the EU and the European Parliament must still ratify the Treaty,” Hammerstein said.

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