Monday 30 July 2012

WIPO's proposed exception for the blind and visually impaired stalls again

In a world where copyright's constant struggle to keep pace with technology is discussed daily, the more basic copyright issues are often overlooked. Since 2008, the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) has been discussing passing a treaty to give blind and visually impaired people easier access to published works. The concept is simple: translation of a copyright protected work into braille* requires the rightsholder's permission. However it seems fair to pass an exception that would give blind and visually impaired people easier access to those works. This blogger cannot find any estimate on what loss this would cause publishing houses, however one imagines that it would not be significant.

© Roland DG
Despite the fact that most will easily agree on the merits of such an exception, progress so far has been sluggish. Last week WIPO reached an agreement on a timeline for completing the treaty, (or instrument). Whilst this blogger can't disagree that WIPO is moving in the right direction, it seems to be doing so excruciatingly slowly. An inter-sessional meeting is to be held between 9 October and 19 November 2012. Then an extraordinary General Assembly to be held in December 2012 to decide whether the visually impaired issue is ready to move to a diplomatic conference in 2013.

The latest draft of the exception, SCCR/24/9, includes brackets around large portions of text that are yet to be agreed, and on top of that, WIPO still has not decided whether the visually impaired negotiations are intended to produce a treaty, recommendations or a declaration. Five years of negotiation for a declaration with no binding effect?

James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, has alleged that the EU and the US are blocking the treaty to protect their publishing industries, and that they have been pushing for softer guidelines or recommendations. This blogger completely understand why translation of a book into braille infringes copyright, in the same way that translation into any language infringes copyright. However when you consider that 90% of the world's blind and visually impaired people live in developing countries, where governments have not been able to acquire express permission from copyright holders to translate their works into braille, you have to wonder what loss the proposed exception would really cause EU and US publishers.

The statistics are fairly shocking: "only some 5% of published books are ever made accessible (in braille, audio, large print etc) in richer countries, and less than 1% in poorer ones." Contrast this with the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights which says that:

Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 27 (i): Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Of course the Declaration on Human Rights is not the answer to everything, and publishers and rightsholders are equally justified in relying on Article 27(ii), however Articles 19 and 27(i) highlight the importance of access to information for all.

Dan Pescod of the Royal National Institute of Blind People has said that the Spanish organisation Once has well over 100,000 [translated] books that it would like to send to Latin American countries, but which it can't because of copyright. He went on to say that libraries in five Latin American countries – Colombia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Uruguay and Chile – have fewer than 9,000 accessible books between them.

Copyright is a hot political issue, with both the EU and US giving it unprecedented attention. It is not surprising that this attention is directed where there is money to be made or lost: new technology, satellite broadcasting, social media and piracy. However it is disappointing that more progress was not made last week, particularly given that such a fundamental exception could have a huge impact both on the lives of individuals and on the development of economies in poorer countries.

The conclusions of last week's WIPO meeting are available here.

*For those who are interested, braille, despite being a language, is not capitalised.


Anonymous said...

1) Braille is not a language. It is a writing system for a set of languages, which includes in some grades shorthand notation and contractions and encodings of common words. Text in the Braille system decodes to a specific language.

2) Therefore, conversion of a text into Braille is not translation, but transcription, since the language does not change.

3) I am not sure why the author makes a point of asserting that Braille should be set in lowercase. Braille is properly capitalised, despite the Guardian style guide's assertion, since it is a proper eponym, being the name of its originator. This follows the normal English rule. I am not quite sure why the Guardian Style Guide is doing this disservice to Louis Braille, who pioneered the concept of the tactile writing system that bears his name, but the OED certainly accords the word its proper capitalisation. We only tend to drop eponyms when the contribution of the individual concerned has ceased to be widely recognised, and I am far from sure that this has happened with Braille.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the corrections. I wasn't sure whether Braille took a capital which is why I looked it up and was surprised when I found that it does (according to some sources) not.