Help Stop the Blind Being Kicked in the Teeth Again

I frequently cover the subject of copyright on this blog because increasingly it is impacting the lives of readers, both as individuals and as people working in companies, in an adverse way. But these problems of accessing texts, say, are even...

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I frequently cover the subject of copyright on this blog because increasingly it is impacting the lives of readers, both as individuals and as people working in companies, in an adverse way. But these problems of accessing texts, say, are even greater for a particular subset of readers: those who are visually impaired.

I am sure that everyone reading this blog who is not visually impaired would agree that this group of people deserves extra consideration to help them overcome any obstacles that get in the way of accessing information – so vital in the modern world. In a humane society, then, our political representatives would bend over backwards to aid this and similar groups through legislation and treaties designed to make things at least a little easier.

We do not live in that world, and the following disgraceful copyright saga is the proof.

As this timeline from Knowledge Ecology International indicates, in 1981:

The governing bodies of WIPO and UNESCO agreed to create a Working Group on Access by the Visually and Auditory Handicapped to Material Reproducing Works Produced by Copyright.

In 1982:

The Working Group on Access by the Visually and Auditory Handicapped to Material Reproducing Works Protected by Copyright met at UNESCO House, Paris, from October 25 to 27, 1982.

In 1983:

"Model Provisions Concerning the Access by Handicapped Persons to the Works Protected by Copyright," were drawn up by the October 1982 Working Group on the subject convened jointly by UNESCO and WIPO.

Thirty years after the discussions began, and model provisions were drawn up, there is still no treaty that would enable the visually handicapped around the world to access and share copyright materials.

That sharing is important, because it means that once a text has been converted to an audio book, say, it does not need recording again, allowing more works to be converted into alternative formats. Sharing is one of the reasons open source is more efficient than closed source: you don't have to keep on re-inventing the wheel.

But that's not happening in the world of the visually impaired. The copyright industries, loath as they are ever to concede anything to anyone, even to the blind, are refusing to allow such sharing to be an accepted practice because they fear that somehow there is going to be a global conspiracy of the blind to defraud them of their "rights".

Rather than risk this apocalyptic situation, for the last three decades the copyright industries have lobbied Western governments to stonewall any treaty for the visually impaired.

And so it is that the blind have been waiting in darkness for nearly a third of a century, cruelly teased by the negotiators – doubtless highly-skilled, highly-paid negotiators who have had a whale of a time as they met up to haggle over possible phrasings of a theoretical treaty – that they might soon have easier access to written materials in their lifetime.

And that teasing goes on: we now have the wonderfully-titled "SCCR/22/15 Consensus Document on an international instrument on limitations and exceptions for persons with print disabilities". Despite the fact that it represents the fruit of 30 years of discussions – or maybe because – there are still disagreements, essentially driven by the copyright industries who predict that the sky will indubitably fall if anything rash were done in the next decade or two.

Indeed, in 2009, a mere 28 years after discussions began, even thinking about any treaty was called "premature":

Group B Countries, including the United States, 17 members of the European Union, Canada, Switzerland, the Holy See, and others, argued last week that consideration of any instrument to set norms for access to works by persons who are blind or have reading disabilities was "premature."

That pretty much sums up what's happened over the last three decades: the richest – and most religious – countries joining forces year after year to kick the blind in the teeth.

Unusually – and to its credit – the UK "Intellectual Property Office" is asking for some feedback on this latest Consensus Document. Here's its introduction:

The UK has in place legislative provisions that facilitate access to copyright material for persons with print disabilities within the UK. Similar provisions are found in other EU Member States. However there are still many countries that do not have a legislative mechanism that allows access to copyright works for persons with print disabilities. Even where countries do allow for the making of accessible copies, those copies cannot be sent to a third country (they cannot be sent across borders).

Work has been underway at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to find an international solution to this problem. Discussions have focussed on two key objectives: enabling international exceptions to allow the creation of accessible works and facilitating the transfer of those works across borders. The UK as part of the European Union and its 27 member states is playing a role in these discussions at WIPO.

As this makes clear, the issue is not what happens in the UK, since there is already legislation in place that facilitates access to copyright materials. It's about emerging countries without such legislation, where access is not allowed and/or where accessible copies cannot be sent to a third countries for sharing.

In other words, what is being requested is absolutely minimal, in markets of negligible economic importance to the West; and yet the copyright industries have been deploying the full force of their influence in certain countries (but not the UK, as far as I can tell) to stymie even these modest requirements.

I therefore urge you to email the UK government at [email protected], expressing your views on this thirty-year old and continuing insult to the visually-impaired. If you want a slightly less angry background to this area than the present post, I recommend Knowledge Ecology International's sensible and grown-up comments as a good starting point. The bad news is this needs to be done today – sorry about that.

Here's my barely-controlled submission:

I applaud the fact that the Intellectual Property Office is seeking comments on the important issue of the proposed international instrument on limitations and exceptions for persons with print disabilities, because I think the key problem with the last 30 years of fruitless negotiations has been the absence of an important voice: that of the public.

Consider this thought experiment: stop a few hundred or thousand people in the street, and ask them whether they thought it was more important to allow the visually impaired to access and share copyright materials, or whether publishers' concerns about any possible – but hitherto undemonstrated – abuse should be paramount, and I would be willing to bet the vast majority would opt for the former. Indeed, whenever I have described to people what has happened during the current negotiations, the uniform response has been shock and outrage that the visually-impaired are being treated in this utterly shabby way.

The lack of input from the man and woman in the street – the people who vote for the politicians who appoint the negotiators – has allowed an air of unreality to creep into discussion. No "ordinary" person would even have the conversation about whether the visually impaired should have the rights they are seeking: it is just a basic question of humanity to grant them straight away.

On this basis, I therefore urge the UK negotiators to step back, and look at the broader picture. For thirty years, the blind and visually impaired have had obstacles placed in the way of accessing and sharing materials. Those legal obstacles are even more outrageous now that a wide range of technologies exist for making their lives a little easier.

The time has come to say: "enough", and to sign this treaty granting all of these minimal and proportionate requests. The time has come for the UK to stand up for decency and to convince its EU partners to treat the visually impaired and blind with the compassion they deserve.

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