An historic international treaty to increase book access for blind and visually impaired people has finally been adopted at a meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) after almost six years of wrangling, negotiations and setbacks.
Signed at a WIPO conference in Marrakech, Morocco, the treaty will allow exceptions to copyright laws so accessible versions of books and other printed material can be shared internationally for blind and visually impaired people to use. Up to now, such sharing of books has not been possible due to objections from copyright holders in some countries.
For the treaty to now come into force, 20 countries have to ratify it. Once this happens, any country can sign up to the treaty by ratifying it, and would then have to abide by its terms.
Dan Pescod, Vice Chair of the World Blind Union – a key player in negotiations and the development of the treaty – told E-Access Bulletin that during the last day of the WIPO Marrakech conference, 51 countries signed the treaty, with a signature being “a strong demonstration of intent to ratify the treaty”. The UK was one of four EU countries to sign.
Even during this latest conference, it seemed possible the treaty would be deferred once more or watered down, said Pescod. He said the eventual successful outcome was such a surprise it was dubbed the ‘miracle in Marrakech’ by some involved.
The final treaty contains everything for which the WBU had hoped, Pescod said, although one element that remains “less clear” is that of commercial availability checks. “[This is] the idea that you would only be able to use treaty if you have satisfied the question of whether a book is already available in an accessible format commercially [in the country you’re sending to]. That was excluded from the export part of the treaty.”
However, this caveat only applies to a small number of countries – those that have a domestic commercial availability clause in their law – and would not necessarily be implemented by those countries, he said. The UK does have such a law however, and the WBU is now in talks with the country’s Intellectual Property Office to discuss the issue.
Although it represents a crucial victory in the fight for wider accessible book access, Pescod said the signing represents the beginning of a subsequent, new phase of work. “As much as it was an intense and exhausting campaign … we now have a new campaign to get countries to ratify the treaty, and with that comes the job of explaining to people in simple terms what the treaty provisions allow.”
Alongside this global campaign, the World Blind Union will be helping countries and organisations to use the treaty effectively and practically, as well as continuing to work with publishers and software developers to promote accessible publishing. “The treaty is only a means to that end, it’s not the end in itself”, Pescod said.
Pescod estimates that accessible books should start being shared across borders by 2015, after the WBU campaigns for an initial 20 countries to ratify the treaty (which is necessary for it to come into force), which the WBU is hoping to achieve by the end of 2014.
“This is very much a historic and unprecedented thing that we’ve done and we’re very proud to have done it,” said Pescod, “but we know we’ve still got a lot of work to do to ensure that we make a really big dent in this book famine, so we’re not going to be resting on our laurels just because we’ve got this treaty.”
More information on the background to the treaty can be read in previous issues of E-Access Bulletin: www.headstar.com/eablive/?s=wipo&x=0&y=0
The final treaty, named the ‘Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled’, can be viewed from the links below in Word document and PDF: