Group Finalizes Treaty to Expand Book Access for World’s Blind Community

By Hayley Tsukayama and Tom Hamburger | 04:15 PM ET, 06/26/2013

Negotiators at the World Intellectual Property Organization have finalized terms on a copyright treaty that would provide more book access to the world’s blind and visually impaired.

The treaty makes it legal to make copies of copyrighted material accessible to the blind community by converting it to formats such as Braille books, audio recordings or large-print books without first having to seek permission from copyright holders in every instance.

Advocates for the visually impaired say that fewer than one percent of all the world’s books are accessible in these formats. The treaty would make it possible for converted texts in a given language to be available in multiple countries.

As The Washington Post has reported, the treaty had run into some trouble between advocates and organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America. At issue were provisions dealing with fair use and the implementation of a “three-step test” that would have prevented groups from converting works if it interfered with a copyright owner’s ability to profit from the books. The two factions clashed over whether the treaty could wind up affecting other types of copyrighted material, such as movies or videos.

The full text of the treaty, which was finalized Wednesday at the WIPO Diplomatic Conference in Morocco, has not been released publicly. But leaders of a coalition that has been fighting for blind access to published material declared victory over the MPAA and a corporate coalition in winning U.S. and international support for the pact.

“We are very happy with the agreement,”said James Love, of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit that has advocated for the treaty. He and others expressed a mix and amazement and pleasure over the result. He said that final language blocked efforts by the motion picture industry to apply new tests for exceptions to copyright rules.

Carrie Russell of the Library Copyright Alliance said the librarians group applauds “the world delegates for approving a treaty that makes it possible for every visually-impaired person around the world to have fair access to reading materials.”

The MPAA and the National Federation for the Blind also hailed the treaty’s final language in a joint statement issued Wednesday.

”We are pleased that the negotiations in Marrakech have resulted in a treaty that we believe will significantly increase access to published works for the blind and visually impaired,” MPAA president Christopher Dodd said in the statement. “Working collectively, and with goodwill, we have created a vehicle that will serve a meaningful and important purpose for many years to come.”

Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind said: .“This historic treaty, the first-ever international instrument specifically addressing the needs of the world’s blind, will dramatically increase access to published works and the empowering information and ideas that they contain by a community that has traditionally experienced barriers to obtaining the world’s knowledge.”

Negotiators said they expect the treaty to be formally adopted and signed by the end of the week.

Last week, blind singer/songwriter Stevie Wonder promised that he would perform for the WIPO negotiators once the treaty was completed. According to the World Blind Union, the multiple Grammy award winner will honor his pledge on Friday at the treaty signing ceremony and celebration in Marrakesh.

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