At the 18th session of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) of the World Intellectual Property Organization recently held in Geneva, a treaty was proposed by the World Blind Union to grant a copyright exemption for the production and distribution of books in a specialized format accessible by people with print reading disabilities. The result of such a treaty could be the international availability of accessible books from organizations such as Bookshare, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Disabled and Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic.

Predictably, organizations representing authors and publishers are concerned about any copyright changes that might expand the piracy of their work. These concerns are currently being expressed by SCCR delegates as opposition to the copyright exemption treaty. Blind people and others with print reading disabilities need and deserve equal access to books, while authors and publishers have the right to earn an income in compensation for their efforts. According to blogger James Love, who updated us via Twitter as the meeting progressed, “Group B has offered amendments to a proposed conclusion for the WIPO SCCR 18 meeting. The amendments are designed to eliminate any agreement to discuss a treaty for blind and reading disabled persons at the next meeting of the SCCR. The United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, the Holly See (the Vatican), the members of the European Union and other high income countries have joined in this statement.”

I think all of us in the connected, online blind community can agree that print reading material and other forms of information should be usable by the blind and other people with disabilities that curtail their ability to read print. Further, I also think we can agree that the marketplace (companies and organizations representing authors and the publishing industry) has largely ignored us and has taken unfortunate steps to curtail our right to equal access. This overall ignorance on the part of the marketplace has generated the need for copyright exemptions that enable us to make our own accessibility without the need to seek written permission from publishers to reproduce books in accessible formats.

We achieved a victory in the conclusion of the 18th SCCR session. The copyright exemption proposal will be discussed again at the 19th session of the SCCR. We have an opportunity to advocate for our right to equal access in a way that expresses a sensitivity to the needs of all stakeholders, including the very authors and publishers who regularly ignore us. In our advocacy, I propose the following overall agenda for our activities:

  • Accept publishers’ desire for reasonable anti-piracy measures that do not curtail our access, including: definition of what constitutes an “authorized organization” for the distribution of accessible books, description of who is eligible to receive accessible materials under the exemption, standardization of the specialized formats that will be used to deliver accessible books and specifications for any digital rights management (DRM), usage tracking and watermarking for the purpose of preventing unauthorized duplication of accessible materials.
  • When issues of digital rights management arise, we should prefer the Bookshare scheme over those employed by organizations like NLS and RFBD.
  • Except in cases where DRM technology makes existing electronic books inaccessible to us, let’s try to keep the issues of equal access and DRM as separate as possible in the communications that make up our advocacy efforts.
  • American citizens who are blind or have other print reading disabilities, and those without disabilities who care about us, should write letters to President Obama asking him to direct his delegation at SCCR to fully support the treaty on copyright exceptions for visually impaired persons.
  • Similarly, citizens of other Group B nations should write letters to their prime ministers and other appropriate political leaders asking that they direct their SCCR delegations to fully support the treaty on copyright exceptions for visually impaired persons.
  • It may be worth considering the creation of an online petition as a means of simply demonstrating the high levels at which most technology experts and users will support the proposed treaty.
  • Finally, we all must work tirelessly over the next couple of months to promote our cause and spread the word of our efforts as far and wide as possible as the 19th meeting of the SCCR nears.

I think it is absolutely critical that we advocate strenuously for our right to equal access to books while expressing a willingness to make reasonable compromises with those stakeholders who have significant financial investments to protect. We may endure a little pain along the way, but if we are willing to consistently advocate for ourselves and stay in the game for the long haul, I’m quite confident we will come out ahead.