The RNIB has given a cautious welcome to a World Intellectual Property Organisation decision to agree a timetable for creation of a new international law allowing sharing of accessible versions of copyright works across national borders.
If passed, the law would require the introduction of exceptions in the national legislation of all member states, so that print-disabled people, including blind people, people with impaired vision and people with dyslexia, can make accessible copies of copyright works and share them across international boundaries.
The decision is the latest twist in a three-year process of debating whether, how and when a new law could be agreed. A treaty on copyright exceptions and limitations was first proposed by the World Blind Union in 2008. It was backed in 2009 by WIPO member states Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay, later joined by Mexico and supported by the US, the UK and others.
In December 2009 the nineteenth session of the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) agreed to hold a series of consultation meetings on the issue. But in June 2010, the committee’s twentieth session finished deadlocked on the best way to proceed further. Some countries, including some EU member states, raised objections to any exception to copyright law that could allow free copying under any circumstances, after lobbying by publishers and copyright holders who feared a precedent would be created that could encourage copyright piracy.
After a further week of debate, the 21st session of SCCR finished in Geneva at 1am last Saturday morning with the agreement of a timetable for progress towards a legal instrument.
The timetable allows for work on copyright exceptions for accessible copies to continue at the 22nd five-day session in June 2011, with three extra days set aside for specific discussion of the issue. A recommendation will then be put forward to the WIPO general assembly in Sept 2011.
Other related issues, including calls by African countries for similar exceptions to be made for libraries, archives and educational bodies, will be considered later in 2011 and in 2012.
RNIB Campaign Manager Dan Pescod, who has attended the Geneva meetings as part of a World Blind Union delegation, said progress in the committees had been “glacially slow”, but that “to paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
“We have fought for a long time to get this issue understood in the committee, and then to get all parties to agree that some kind of law needs to be drafted, and now to put together a timetable about when we are going to negotiate. Now we have that on the record so we know they are serious.”
However, Pescod warned that the battle was not yet over, and the process could yet hit further delays. “We are very pleased with where we have got to, but I do have a strong concern [the extra three days] won’t be enough time.”
On the objections raised by some countries to the passing of a law, he said fears that they would lead to losses for publishers were groundless because bodies like the RNIB would only step in to make accessible copies such as audio books where the publishers themselves had not done so.
“The publisher loses nothing. If they have made their own unabridged audio version, RNIB would not want to bother – and where they have not, they were not going to make any money from it in any case. The exception is there to fall back on where market has not supplied an accessible version.”