International negotiators recently agreed to a landmark treaty that will increase access to books for the visually impaired. The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled requires signatories to adopt national law provisions that permit the reproduction, distribution and making available of published works in accessible formats through limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright holders.
The treaty, negotiated through the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), involved 600 negotiators from 186 member states. The final treaty was approved after more than a week of heated debate at a meeting in Monaco, including initial resistance by the Motion Picture Association of America.
“This treaty is a victory for the blind, visually impaired and print disabled, but also for the multilateral system. With this treaty, the international community has demonstrated the capacity to tackle specific problems, and to agree a consensus solution. This is a balanced treaty, and represents a very good arbitration of the diverse interests of the various stakeholders,” said WIPO Director General Francis Gurry.
Currently, national governments determine what limitations and exceptions are permitted. In the United States, accessible format works, including braille, audio, or digital text, can be produced and distributed without permission from the copyright holder, so long as it is for the exclusive use by blind or other persons with disabilities.
However, the U.S. copyright law is not the standard, particularly in less developed countries. A WIPO survey in 2006 found that fewer than only 60 countries have limitations and exceptions clauses in their copyright laws that make special provision for visually impaired persons.
In addition to making it easier to convert books into formats such as Braille, large print text and audio books, the treaty also provides for the exchange of these accessible format works across borders by organizations that serve the people who are blind, visually impaired, and print disabled. According to WIPO, the goal is to harmonize limitations and exceptions so that these organizations can operate across borders, while also providing assurances to authors and publishers that that system will not expose their published works to misuse or distribution to anyone other than the intended beneficiaries.
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