Let's Make the Visually Impaired Full Digital Citizens


As I wrote recently in my Open... blog, copyright is about making a fair deal: in return for a government-supported, time-limited monopoly, creators agree to place their works in the public domain after that period has expired. But that monopoly also allows exceptions, granted for various purposes like the ability to quote limited extracts, or the ability to make parodies (details depend on jurisdiction.)

The industries based around copyright's intellectual monopoly don't like those exceptions, and fight tooth and nail against any extensions of them. Naturally enough, you might say – after all, they're businesses, and it's they're duty to shareholders to maximise their profits. But sometimes this reflexive refusal to compromise a jot because of concerns about the bottom line goes too far. As, I would suggest, in this case.

A draft treaty has been prepared by the World Blind Union, and put forward by the WIPO Delegations of Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay in May 2009. In essence, this treaty seeks to allow those with visual impairments to read books that are currently unavailable to them – a staggering 95% of the total market. Here's the heart of the text:

It shall be permitted without the authorisation of the owner of copyright to make an accessible format of a work, supply that accessible format, or copies of that format, to a visually impaired person by any means, including by non-commercial lending or by electronic communication by wire or wireless means, and undertake any intermediate steps to achieve these objectives, when all of the following conditions are met:

1. the person or organisation wishing to undertake any activity under this provision has lawful access to that work or a copy of that work;

2. the work is converted to an accessible format, which may include any means needed to navigate information in the accessible format, but does not introduce changes other than those needed to make the work accessible to a visually impaired person;

3. copies of the work are supplied exclusively to be used by visually impaired persons; and

4. the activity is undertaken on a non-profit basis.

Notice all the caveats: that this is only for the use of visually-impaired people, that is done on a non-profit basis with legally-obtained copies. Clearly, these are to avoid the situation where illegal copies of books were made for ordinary users.

You would have thought, then, that the publishers would have been only to happy to grant such a minor, and very tightly-worded exception to people whose lives could be rendered richer and more satisfying by being able to access a vast range of literature currently unavailable to them.

But no.

Even though the copyright lobby has succeeded in ratcheting up the term of copyright time and time again, from the original 14 years of the Statute of Queen Anne, to the insanely long periods we see today (typically 70 years after the death of the author), *without ever giving anything back* as a quid pro quo; even though they have taken and taken and taken, they are not prepared to give one iota, even to those who find themselves so hugely disadvantaged by the lack of suitable editions.

Now, normally, that would be the end of the story. The copyright industry has powerful friends in politics – and hence organisations like WIPO. But something strange has happened: for perhaps the first time, WIPO is actually soliciting opinions on this idea:

Different views have been expressed so far. Some countries support the proposal for a binding instrument while others express the wish for more time to analyze, or to continue the work on the basis of a global and inclusive framework, or consider that deliberations regarding any international instrument are premature.

Those “different views” are essentially the delegations from countries like the US whose agenda is that of the copyright industry, fighting against countries like Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay that have taken up cudgels on behalf of the world's 150 million visually impaired, who simply don't count in the eyes of the opposite camp.

This blog seeks comments from the general public on the possible benefits or concerns about this draft treaty proposal (or any other future proposals on this topic), including its objectives and possible courses of action that would facilitate access by VIPs.

OK, so all we are being granted is the opportunity to leave a comment on a blog – but hey, this is revolutionary for WIPO: we are actually being asked our opinions about whether the blind have a right to read e-books, rather than simply being told that they don't.

So, this is what I've written:

I welcome this opportunity to comment on the draft treaty put forward by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay, and commend WIPO for requesting input from ordinary citizens on this important topic that will be of concern to everyone with compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves.

Copyright strives to achieve a balance between encouraging future creation and allowing the public to access already existing materials as part of the public domain. The time-limited monopoly to exclude others from using their works granted to creators is the quid pro quo of releasing those works into the public domain after that monopoly has expired. The length of that monopoly is supposed to be just long enough to encourage further creation, but no longer, so as to maximise the public domain for the larger public good.

The present proposal does not alter this balance in any respect. It simply gives the visually impaired a right to read materials that are available to those able to access the standard versions. Giving the visually impaired a tightly-circumscribed exception to copyright's monopoly does not diminish it in the slightest, it merely makes it more equitable.

For this reason, I urge WIPO to begin text-based negotiations in this area to ensure that the visually-impaired are not discriminated against in this way, and are granted full and fair access to what is their patrimony: the public domain-to-be, albeit under the accepted conditions of copyright's intellectual monopoly.

If you too feel that the visually-impaired should not be treated as second-class citizens of the digital world, you might like to add your comments too.

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