Obama Sides With Blind in Copyright-Treaty Debate

By David Kravets December 15, 2009

The Obama administration announced Tuesday it supports loosening international copyright protections to enable cross-border distribution of special-format reading materials for the blind, a move that puts it at odds with nearly all of U.S. industry.

The government announced its support for the underlying principle of the WIPO Treaty for Sharing Accessible Formats of Copyrighted Works for Persons Who are Blind or Have other Reading Disabilities. The announcement was made in Geneva (.pdf) before a subcommittee of the the World Intellectual Property Organization, which has about 180 members.

The move comes as a broad spectrum of American enterprise, ranging from major software makers and book publishers to motion picture and music companies, have opposed the proposed international treaty that would make books more accessible to the blind. The chief complaint is that the treaty creates a bad precedent by loosening copyright restrictions, instead of tightening them as have every other international copyright treaty.

“We recognize that some in the international copyright community believe that any international consensus on substantive limitations and exceptions to copyright law would weaken international copyright law,” Justin Hughes, a Department of Commerce senior adviser, told the WIPO on Tuesday. “The United States does not share that point of view.”

But the administration was careful Tuesday not to alienate U.S. industry even as it supported the blind and visually impaired. For example, Hughes acknowledged that the government was willing to strengthen international copyright laws in other regards.

“The United States is committed to both better exceptions in copyright law and better enforcement of copyright law,” Hughes said. “Indeed, as we work with countries to establish consensus on proper, basic exceptions within copyright law, we will ask countries to work with us to improve the enforcement of copyright. This is part and parcel of a balanced international system of intellectual property.”

Toward that end, the United States is one of the lead negotiators of a proposed international accord that the European Union suggested was too friendly to business. A leaked EU document connected to the Anti-Counterfeiting and Trade Agreement suggested that the Obama administration’s “overriding objective” is to “facilitate the continued development of industry.”

The documents suggest the United States might want ISPs around the world to punish suspected, repeat downloaders with a system of “graduated response” — code for a three-strikes policy that results in digital copyright offenders eventually being disconnected from the internet, with the ISP alone deciding what constitutes infringement and fair use.

Regarding the treaty for the blind, the proposal would sanction the cross-border sharing of DRM-protected digitized books — without payment to the publisher — that tens of thousands of blind and visually disabled people read with devices and tools like the Pac Mate, Book Port and Victor Reader.

Many WIPO nations, most in the industrialized world including England, the United States and Canada, have copyright exemptions that usually allow nonprofit companies to market copyrighted works without permission. As it now stands, none of the nations may allow persons outside their borders to access these works, which are usually doled out for little or no charge by nonprofit groups.

The treaty seeks to free up the cross-border sharing of the books for the blind. Usually, they are published in a universal Daisy format, which includes features like narration and digitized Braille. It could take a year or more before an international consensus might be reached.

Reproduced from http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/12/obama-blind-treaty/