An international accord that would vastly expand the range of books and other copyright materials accessible to millions of blind people around the world came a step closer this week after a surprise shift in approach by Washington.
Organisations representing blind and visually impaired people have been pressing for years for a global pact that would allow books produced in Braille and other special formats, including digitised audio texts, to be shared across national borders.
But up to now the US and other industrialised countries have heeded strong opposition by the mainstream publishing industry. It fears a cross-border accord would set a bad precedent by weakening rather than strengthening copyright protection as previous treaties have done.
However, speaking at a meeting on the issue at the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation in Geneva, Justin Hughes, head of the US delegation, dismissed these fears and called for Wipo discussions that could eventually lead to a formal treaty.
The first goal should be “to reach international consensus on the free exportation and importation of special format materials for persons with print disabilities in all countries,” Mr Hughes said.
The US was “committed to policies that ensure everyone has a chance to get the information and education they need and to live independently as full citizens in their communities”.
Blind organisations and campaign groups supporting them hailed the US statement and expressed the hope that other industrialised countries would follow Washington’s lead.
Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay have already put forward a draft treaty proposed by the World Blind Union as a basis for discussion. A decision by Wipo’s 184 members on how to proceed is expected on Friday.
Nearly 60 countries have “exceptions and limitations” clauses written into their copyright laws that make special provision for the blind. But national laws do not permit books and other materials produced under these exceptions to be sent abroad.
Instead, each country is required to produce its own materials for the blind, a costly endeavour that severely limits access to written works of all kinds. Christopher Friend of Sightsavers International says of all the books published in the world less than 5 per cent are available in formats accessible to the blind and visually impaired, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries.
Pablo Lecuona, who runs an Argentina-based digital library project for blind Spanish speakers, says Spain has some 100,000 accessible books and Argentina another 50,000 while Spanish-speaking Panama and Nicaragua have no more than 200 titles between them. Sharing with Madrid would increase accessible titles 1,000-fold, he points out.