For the past five years, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) has been discussing proposed exceptions to the copyright reproductions rights that would help the visually impaired and those with other print disabilities. The problem is obvious: there are millions of individuals across the world to whom printed media is inaccessible, because of visual impairments or other physical or developmental disabilities. Solutions to providing access to the written word for people with these disabilities are, technology-wise, simple and readily available, and include ebooks, braille, large-print books, and audio books.

Unfortunately for those with disabilities—especially for the disabled in developing countries—and despite the availability of these technologies, virtually no publications are published in accessible formats. Up to now, import limitations and translation costs have remained prohibitively high.

In 1948, the United Nations released the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 27 of the UDHR states that “[e]veryone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefit.” Thus, the fact that those with print and visual disabilities are unable to read over ninety-nine percent of written works—the mode of transmission for vast amounts of human culture, art, and scientific advancement—can easily be described as a human-rights violation.

Mindful of the need for lowering the costs of disseminating the written word to the visually impaired, on June 27, 2013—a date that also marks the anniversary of Helen Keller’s birth—the WIPO Diplomatic Conference for Visually Impaired Persons concluded, and WIPO thus adopted, a treaty for the visually impaired. According to recording legend Stevie Wonder, “this new treaty is a major step to access to the basics.” He went on:

This victory is most significant for many reasons: most obviously a positive impact for the blind and the visually impaired; but also it sends a message to all world leaders that it is possible to do business and to do good at the same time.

The treaty, signed in Marrakesh, Morocco, will become effective when twenty member nations ratify it. It is unclear how long that will take, but many are optimistic that this treaty will do a lot to remedy what some call the “book famine.” Fifty-six countries, all members of WIPO, signed the document at the conclusion of the Conference, which is a strong signal of their dedication to quickly ratify the treaty.

For more information and to keep up with the progress of this treaty’s implementation, check out WIPO’s overview here.

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3 Responses to WIPO Adopts a Long-Awaited Treaty for the Visually Impaired

  1. Andrew says:

    JP, thanks for this very interesting post. Certainly this treaty is a move in the right direction in providing increased resources for the visually impaired to be able to experience the joys of written works. I, too, however have pragmatic view of how this treaty will be implemented. Clearly, just as JP said, the United States is not going to take a lead in ratifying this treaty. First off, Congress has a very poor record of ratifying treaties. Secondly, as we saw in recent years with congressional debates over copyright and the media, Congress is not easy to convince that the copyright interests of major US corporations may be overcome by freedom of information in the digital age. Clearly, this treaty is a positive step and Congress would be wrong not to assist in providing these materials to visually impaired peoples, Congress has shown it is willing to be unpopular in this realm before.

  2. J.P. Urban says:

    I definitely think the Treaty has a rocky road before it. Many were calling its adoption by WIPO a “miracle.” Apparently some representatives from the United States unexpectedly changed their minds at the eleventh hour. I don’t believe that the US will be among the first countries to ratify, and it will take a perfect storm of public opinion and politics to ever implement it into law when the US finally does ratify.

    Avery, you bring up the practical considerations in making this treaty work, and I agree that those hurdles are as–if not more–difficult to overcome than the governmental ones. This treaty will be an issue that we will hear about for a long time.

  3. Avery VanPelt says:

    Thanks for writing this, J.P., and for spotlighting this issue. This is great news, but I’m very curious to see how the principles behind this treaty will be implemented by the ratifying nations, and who will bear the costs of implementation? Will the different governments simply be relaxing their copyright laws, leaving it to NGOs and nonprofits to make the works available? Who will take on the costs of translation? And how will the copyright holders’ rights be consistently protected given that it is up to each government to determine what limitations and exceptions are permitted? (Maybe this is a non issue, given that various governments offer different copyright protections to begin with.) I certainly think this will be an interesting and enlightening process to watch once the treaty is ratified, but I agree that the signing of the treaty itself is an important signal, and a step in the right direction.