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International Right to Read: Helping Extend Access for the Blind to Copyrighted Works

Published onNov 18, 2009
International Right to Read: Helping Extend Access for the Blind to Copyrighted Works

Imagine your favorite author is releasing a new book, but you can’t read it at the same time as the rest of world, instead you have to wait weeks or maybe even longer for it to come out in a format that you can read. This is a reality for approximately 160 million people around the world who are blind or suffer from other visual impairments. The overwhelming majority of published works are never made available in braille, large print or audio versions. Those works that are made available in accessible formats are usually released later than regular print versions and are sold at an increased cost. To address this problem, the World Blind Union has started the International Right to Read campaign. The purpose of the campaign is to ensure that “everyone [is] able to read the same book at the same time at the same price.”

As part of the campaign, the World Blind Union is working with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to effect changes in copyright law which would allow more written works to be made available in accessible formats. Although there is a sizeable market for accessible works, lingering concerns over rights clearances and downstream infringement have resulted in fewer works being released in accessible formats. At the May 2009 meeting of WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), a proposed treaty intended to benefit the blind and visually impaired was introduced. The proposed treaty, which has the approval of the World Blind Union, would require the adoption of copyright exceptions and limitations for the purpose of providing accessible formats for the blind and visually impaired. The full text of the proposed treaty is available here.

One interesting feature of the proposed treaty is that it would allow for qualified distribution of copyrighted works in accessible formats without the permission of the rights holders, and such works could be made available in countries whose laws presently contain no copyright exceptions geared towards protecting the interests of the visually impaired. This proposal raises interesting legal and public policy questions. Should the copyright holders’ rights trump the interests of the visually impaired in gaining equal access to copyrighted works? Or, do current copyright laws unfairly disadvantage the visually impaired by denying them access to copyrighted works on the same basis as others?

At the SCCR meeting, the United States expressed its commitment to working towards enhancing the accessibility of copyrighted works for the blind and visually impaired. The United States already has some laws in place to protect the interests of the visually impaired. For example, the “Chafee Amendment” is an exception to the Copyright Act which allows authorized entities such as the Library of Congress to reproduce and distribute certain literary works in accessible formats for use by the blind and disabled. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 allows publishers of educational materials to use a specialized file format which allows materials to be translated into other accessible formats such as braille for use by students with visual impairments. If adopted, the proposed treaty would further enhance access to copyrighted works for the blind and visually disabled. The United States Copyright Office and the United States Patent and Trademark Office recently sought comments on the treaty proposal as well as other suggestions on how to facilitate access of the blind or visually impaired to copyrighted material.  Reply comments are due by December 4, 2009.

If adopted, the proposed treaty may not have a substantial impact on US copyright law, which already contains special provisions to enhance the accessibility of copyrighted works for the blind and visually impaired. However, one of the main goals of the proposed treaty is to provide greater access to copyrighted material in countries without similar exceptions. The importance of this initiative is therefore underscored by the estimate that 90 percent of visually impaired persons live in countries of low or moderate incomes, which are less likely to have highly developed copyright laws.

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