Agreement finalized for the “Treaty for the Blind”

Negotiators at the World Intellectual Property Organization Diplomatic Conference in Morocco announced June 26 an agreement to finalize a new treaty creating international copyright exceptions for converting books to accessible formats, such as in Braille, audio recording or large e-print books.

Several flags of various UN members flying at UN Building in NY
Negotiators reach agreement on UN treaty

Under U.S. copyright law, published works can be converted into accessible formats without seeking permission from the copyright holder. This treaty requires all signees to adopt similar laws.

“This historic treaty, the first-ever international instrument specifically addressing the needs of the world’s blind, will dramatically increase access to published works and the empowering information and ideas that they contain by a community that has traditionally experienced barriers to obtaining the world’s knowledge,” Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, told the Washington Post.

More than 600 negotiators from 186 countries attended the conference. The treaty will go into effect when its been ratified by 20 United Nations member states. On June 28, musical icon Stevie Wonder, who has been blind since shortly after his birth, gave a concert in Marrakesh, Morocco to celebrate the pact.

“This is a legacy, a gift to future generations. So let’s finalize a new agreement that opens doors to the world’s written treasures and moves towards a future where there are no barriers to the expansion of knowledge and enjoyment of culture,” Wonder said in a recorded video at the conference, according to Reuters.

Negotiations began as far back as 2008. In recent months, disability advocates had raised the alarm that the treaty was being diluted by special interests such as the Motion Picture Association of America, who was looking for special exceptions for when the copyrights exception threatened the profits of publishers. When the treaty was finalized, most of the major actors, includes the MPAA and disability advocates, were happy with the final product.

“Rather than focusing only on the rights for rights holders, WIPO has shown that it is also capable of protecting human rights… there has long been an obvious solution to end the ‘book famine,’ and today this solution has been adopted,” said Krista Cox of Knowledge Ecology International, in a news release.

Just five percent of books in developed countries are accessible to the blind and visually impaired. The figure is far less than one percent worldwide.