A groundbreaking treaty from WIPO

Friday, 12 July 2013 04:46 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • A victory for the blind, visually impaired and print disabled, but also for the multilateral system
Persons who are visually impaired, blind and print disabled have at last been recognised by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) by adopting a groundbreaking treaty aimed at facilitating copyright protected works to such persons. This treaty, known as the ‘Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired or otherwise Print Disabled,’ named after the city where the meeting at which it was agreed took place, is the first international intellectual property agreement in recent years addressing the needs of a specific category of users and not strengthening copyright protection as has been traditionally the case in WIPO. “This treaty is a victory for the blind, visually impaired and print disabled, but also for the multilateral system,” said WIPO Director General Francis Gurry. “The international community has demonstrated the capacity to tackle specific problems, and to agree on a consensus solution.” According to the World Blind Union (WBU), which played a significant role in pushing this treaty to a successful conclusion, only 5% of all published books in developed countries and less than 1% in developing countries are ever produced in accessible formats – such as Braille, large print, and audio. This situation has been described as “book famine” – a situation which is aggravated by the fact that relatively few countries are said to have limitations exceptions in their national laws to ensure that copyrighted works can be made into accessible formats. In situations where these limitations and exceptions only apply in the country in question, works made into accessible formats in one country cannot be shared with visually impaired persons in another country, thus causing considerable unnecessary duplication of book production in accessible formats. The Marrakesh Treaty seeks to address this problem by establishing a system of cross-border exchange of accessible format works by “authorised entities” that serve those people who are blind, visually impaired, and print disabled. Discussions on this subject have been ongoing for many years at the WIPO standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights. Like in all matters at such international agencies where agreement on all issues is so very difficult, this agreement also had its share of disagreements on a number of key issues which was the reason for the negotiations to have gone on for years. Finally, these issues had been resolved at the Marrakesh diplomatic conference. Audio visual works have been excluded from the treaty which was a major concern of the US film industry which feared that the treaty could “set a costly precedent” and be harmful to film and publishing industries in a digital age where users could have illicit access. The treaty is also the first intellectual property treaty ever to contain a reference to human rights. Its preamble recalls “the principles of non-discrimination, equal opportunity, accessibility, and full and effective participation and inclusion in society, proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”. Representatives of many countries have hailed this treaty as being “balanced,” with the Brazilian Minister of Culture saying that the treaty “addressed the needs of visually impaired persons without weakening the rights of right holders”. In today’s world where visually impaired persons are not necessarily uneducated and many educated persons to whom reading had been a way of life, have become blind or visually impaired due to accidents, bomb attacks, etc., this treaty affords them larger opportunities to access reading material which would give them hope instead of despair. As the World Blind Union head of delegation said at the meeting, it is a “very good treaty which will take another step forward in the inclusion of persons who are blind in society” and urged all governments to prioritise the ratification of the treaty so that it will become the law of the land. (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.)

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