Is the “Treaty For of the Blind” in jeopardy?

A variety of flags from different countries blowing in the wind at the United Nations
United Nations

Negotiations on a United Nations Treaty on copyright exceptions for people who are blind will reconvene in mid-June, but disability advocates are raising the alarm that the treaty is being diluted by special interests.

Under U.S. law, published works can be converted into accessible formats without seeking permission from the copyright holder. From June 17 to June 28, a host of countries will meet in Marrakes, Morocco to continue discussions on a treaty, first introduced in 2008, that would require signees to create similar exceptions in their domestic copyright laws. Currently, only about 60 countries have any form of copyright exception for people with disabilities.

“A four and a half year UN negotiation on a new World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) treaty for people who are blind or have other print disabilities is in danger of delivering either a hollow, ‘trophy treaty; or no treaty at all . . . the three days of discussion at WIPO this April have continued in the same vein as the five days of negotiations in February this year,” the World Blind Union stated in a news release from April 20. “The negotiators have worked almost exclusively on wording to reaffirm copyright protections that already exist in international copyright instruments; and have devoted almost no time to insuring that the treaty will encourage the cross border sharing of desperately needed books for the blind.”

Writing in the Huffington Post on May 7, Jim Fruckterman founder of Benetech, which created the world’s largest accessible digital library of scanned materials,” expressed concern that the Motion Picture Association of America has too much power over the negotiations. In fact, Fruckerterman argues that some of the proposed provisions conflict with U.S. law, such as the proposed “commercial availability requirement,” which prevents libraries from providing books in accessible formats if the book is already commercially available in that format.

“A good treaty would mean real progress, and allow accessible books to reach millions of disabled people in other countries. Extending our own principles–that should be the United States’ negotiating position,” Fruckterman wrote in the Huffington Post. “Now, the progress made is all in jeopardy. Private interests have been hard at work to insert poison pills in the treaty, such as provisions that make the treaty either unpalatable for many countries to sign on to it or too complex to implement.

“It’s a terrible case of private interest trumping the public good.”

Similarly, James Love, director for Knowledge Ecology International, a social justice organization founded by Ralph Nader, argues that the MPAA and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) have “blown up earlier compromises and progress on the negotiating text.”

In a column for the Huffington Post from April 23, Love provides an extensive history of the treaty negotiations, which began in 2008.