After about four years of what was described as rather controversial negotiations by members of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a major decision affecting the visually impaired and print disabled was taken at WIPO’s General Assembly held from 17-18 December.
Members of WIPO agreed to convene a diplomatic conference, which is the highest level of negotiations at WIPO, in June 2013, to negotiate a treaty aimed at improving access to copyrighted material for the visually impaired and print disabled. It was also agreed to set up a preparatory committee to settle the modalities of the diplomatic conference and establish what else has to be done to ensure the success of the conference.
According to the World Blind Union (WBU), there are 285 million blind and partially sighted people worldwide – 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries and least developed countries (LDCs). However, they note, only one to seven per cent of the world’s published books are ever available in formats that blind and partially sighted people can read.
The treaty would allow visually impaired readers access to works that would be normally unavailable to them under national copyright laws or cross-border regulations. It would also be the first time in recent years that WIPO members adopt a legal instrument on limitations and exceptions to copyright.
Visually impaired persons have been complaining in recent years about the extremely low number of books that are available to them in accessible formats, even in the richest countries. This ‘book famine’ is amplified because copyright exceptions are national in scope, one book might be transcribed into Braille by several specialised organisations in different countries, even if those countries have a common language.
The reason that it has taken four years even to summon a diplomatic conference which will hopefully see the creation of a treaty, was the inability of members to agree on a number of issues. One such issue is that of ‘authorised entity,’ which defines who will be entitled to make, obtain and supply accessible format copies of works. Compromise could not be reached on this topic, particularly regarding which authorised entities would be able to carry out cross border exchanges and how these would be monitored.
In an organisation with 185 member states having diverse views, decision making takes time. In this context, four years of negotiations could be accepted if at the conclusion of these negotiations, there is a final result by way of a treaty which will benefit those for whom the treaty is designed. As such, agreement to hold a diplomatic conference is a major victory for the visually impaired and print disabled.
Today, being visually impaired or print disabled does not imply non-access to education. Access to quality education is their right as much as anyone else’s. They should have the same access that anyone else has to obtain material from any part of the globe.
Those who are not visually impaired or print disabled have a moral obligation to ensure that those who have such disabilities have the same access to opportunities available to themselves. In this context, a treaty enabling access to knowledge for such persons is a step in the right direction.
(Manel de Silva holds an Honours Degree in Political Science from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and has engaged in professional training in Commercial Diplomacy at ITC and GATT. She has served as a trade diplomat in several Sri Lankan Missions overseas and was the first female Head of the Department of Commerce as Director General of Commerce.)