Big Step Forward On Treaty For The Visually Impaired At WIPO

Over ninety-five percent of printed works are in formats inaccessible to people with visual impairments, representatives of the visually impaired said last week at the World Intellectual Property Organization. An agreement to allow exceptions in copyright law, they argued, could address this “book famine” by removing copyright restrictions on translation of works into accessible formats and on sharing of these translations across national boundaries.

Early days of a WIPO meeting to address this issue saw a groundswell of support for the creation of a treaty on exceptions and limitations for the blind, with a proposal for such a treaty submitted by Brazil, Ecuador, and Paraguay [pdf] that included text from the World Blind Union [pdf]. Advocates were also encouraged by a strong statement in support of an “international consensus” by the United States as well as 17 newly accredited nongovernmental observers to the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), the body charged with handling the issue, fourteen of which are representatives of the visually impaired community.

But some nations remained hesitant about the timing of negotiations, notably the European Union, which argued there needs be more fact-finding before it is decided that copyright is the culprit in limiting access to reading material for the visually impaired. Others, notably the African Group, wanted to ensure that negotiating a solution for the blind does not interfere with negotiations on other exceptions and limitations they see as critical, such as for library archives, education, or research. The SCCR met from 14 to 18 December.

Negotiating Access

In particular, language related to whether WIPO was taking steps towards a “treaty” caused much discussion at the end of the meeting. The Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (GRULAC) – and in particular the three governments who had submitted the proposal – said that a treaty was express goal of their work, and had been advocated by the stakeholders’ representatives, the World Blind Union.

The European Union said they could not accept language about the development of a treaty, sources told Intellectual Property Watch, arguing that they had already “done our share of compromising” and “already gone to quite some length to make this move forward” by changing their position entirely to agree to a work program on the issue.

Negotiations stretched to late Friday evening, with three versions of draft conclusions (available here: draft-conclusions-version-1 [pdf], draft-conclusions-version-2-17-december [pdf], draft-conclusions-version-3-18-december [pdf]. Underlining in the text indicates changes) written and revised over several days before the final version, available here [pdf], was decided.

In the end, both “work program” and “treaty” were removed in direct reference to WIPO’s work on exceptions and limitations for the blind, and the sentence reads: “The Committee accepted the initiation of focused open ended consultations in Geneva aimed at producing an international consensus regarding copyright limitations and exceptions for persons with print disabilities.”

Meanwhile, the African Group and some other countries were clear in saying that progress on a solution for the visually impaired should not be in lieu of work on other duties of the committee. India, for example, called the visually impaired treaty an “extremely important initiative,” but added the committee should keep working on other issues, sources told Intellectual Property Watch.

Limitations and exceptions proposed at the SCCR in addition to the visually impaired include educational activities, research exemptions, and libraries and archives. The SCCR “will fail to deliver its mandate if there is not sufficient results on the four items,” said a delegate supporting the WBU treaty proposal. But there is not yet draft text on the other items, and the visually impaired treaty can, and should, go forward now, the delegate argued.

In the end, language was accepted that mentioned a global approach and the “equal importance and different level of maturity” of the different issues on the table.

Growing Momentum” to Find Solutions, with Time Pressure

”Access to information is key, but access to information is a barrier to us,” said Maryanne Diamond, president of the World Blind Union. There is a “growing momentum” to do something about this issue, said Eric Bridges, director of advocacy and governmental affairs at the American Council of the Blind.

“The US government … in some respects helped to dislodge a logjam.” This, he said, does not “mean things will go sailing through,” but the change in the United States’ position is “positive for us to get what we want.” The US in the past had been much more reticent in expressing strong support (IPW, WIPO, 30 May 2009).

But under the new Obama administration, the United States is now committed to a “more thoughtful, reflective and modulated IP policy that protects the interests of IP holders and creators while serving the interests of civil society,” its head of delegation, Senior Advisor of the Under Secretary of Commerce Justin Hughes told Intellectual Property Watch.

This is “not a developing country issue, [but an] issue for all countries,” a developing country representative said to Intellectual Property Watch, citing a statistic mentioned several times throughout the week that only 5 percent of works in the developed world, and less than one percent in the developing, are accessible to the visually impaired.

”This is our one chance to do something meaningful with this material,” Bridges said. There is a “gathering momentum” and it is “our hope as individuals with print disabilities that these nations will stay at the table and negotiate an agreement that will help people.”

The “dynamic has changed in a positive way,” Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International, an advocacy group which has been working with the WBU on the treaty, later said. But delays can be dangerous. The resources of civil society are limited, and their staying power is not infinite. Accepting a minor or short-term solution while hoping a long-term solution will eventually be negotiated in 10 years is not good enough, Love emphasised.

Still, it “takes some time to analyse” the issue, Christoffer Démery from the Swedish presidency of the European Union told Intellectual Property Watch. The EU wants progress, but information about all the issues involved is needed to make it easier to decide what the best way to proceed is, he added. “We are still in a fact-finding phase,” and would “welcome any more information to help.”

Emanuel Meyer of the Swiss mission said the copyright system was something like a Ford Model T “old, yes, but well tended to and updated, we can expect it to still work perfectly.” He likened the current proposal to being told a part of the car is “not running smoothly, and we are told with a set of new shiny tires it will run again.”

”But,” he added, “we don’t know why it’s not running smoothly. Maybe the gearbox is broken. So the tires may look great but they don’t solve the problem.” The issue is to make sure the solution addresses the problem at hand, he added.

Some industry lobbyists also sought to slow any progress toward what they see as a process of eating away at copyright. Though people are rallying around the idea of a treaty, “there are other ways to do it that can be as effective and won’t undermine IP,” said Mark Esper of the US Chamber of Commerce, who came to Geneva for the first days of the meeting bearing that message. And the problem being experienced by visually impaired persons may lie outside copyright, he added.

Brad Huther of the Chamber added later that the committee should “focus on practical results-oriented strategies” such as specific requirements for the electronic devices like the Kindle electronic book reader.

The goal with a treaty on exceptions and limitations for the print impaired is in part to reduce redundancies that put a strain on scarce resources that need to stretch to many different services for the blind, Bridges explained. Copyright restrictions on internationally-bestselling children’s novel Harry Potter, he said, meant copies of the book translated into accessible formats could not be shared across national lines but instead had to be re-translated in every country.

Protecting Audiovisual Performances

The SCCR also made significant progress towards the convening of a high-level diplomatic conference on audiovisual performances, agreeing to at the next SCCR “consider the next steps and evaluate if there is consensus on a possible recommendation to the General Assembly of WIPO to convene a diplomatic conference with a view of concluding a WIPO treaty for the protection of audiovisual performances.” If convened, this would be the first such conference on the issue since one in 2000 broke down.

“There seems to be an opening in relation to the Audiovisual Treaty,” said Dominick Luquer, general secretary at the International Federation of Actors. “It doesn’t mean they’re ready to hold a diplomatic conference on the treaty.”

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