We have come to associate the Internet and the Information Age with a sense of endless accessibility to the world around us, but for the visually impaired communities worldwide it is a different story entirely. According to the World Blind Union (WBU), visually impaired individuals have access to only 5 percent of published books in developed countries. In poorer countries the number is closer to 1 percent. WBU refers to this lack of access to the written word as a ‘book famine.’ Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants all individuals the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community and enjoy the arts. Clearly, the issue of accessibility for those with print disabilities is one involving fundamental human rights.
For disability and development activists seeking to expand accessibility worldwide, issues of intellectual property and multilateral agreements become a critical issue. Currently, in places like the United States and the EU, there are copyright exceptions that allow organizations such as blind associations to transform copyright material into forms that are accessible to the visually impaired. However, these exceptions are only applicable within the country that granted them. So while it may be lawful for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. to record someone reading a Harry Potter book and distribute the recording to a school for the blind, the same organization cannot ship the recording to a school in Kenya.
One way to address this problem may come from the development of a multilateral agreement that gets all countries on the same page. With the International Instrument on Limitations and Exceptions For Visually Impaired Persons/Persons with Print Disabilities, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) seeks to do just that. Over the past several years WIPO has been facilitating negotiations to harmonize copyright law across the globe to help address this ‘book famine.’ This coming week of July 16, the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights will convene in Geneva to (hopefully) finish the treaty. If so, it may be ratified as soon as the first week in October. One of the main obstacles, however, comes from publishers’ concerns that the copyright exceptions will result in audiobooks being recorded in one country, but then shipped to another country to be sold to the general public. According to Sergio Balibrea, Member of the Cabinet of the Director General at WIPO, one way around this impasse could be for member countries to agree on only importing and exporting such products through government-recognized blind associations.
Such concerns and compromises are the norm for the international organizations that work here in Geneva. And while often these negotiations and discussions feel distant from the everyday lives of the majority of people in the world, such an issue as the right to enjoy a book is something that anyone can understand and appreciate.