08 December 2009

Intellectual Monopolists Scorn the Blind

The ever-vigilant James Love pointed to this fascinating submission from the UK's venerable Royal National Institute of the Blind [.pdf]:

Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is the UK's leading charity offering information, support and advice to over two million people with sight loss.


Even in the wealthiest markets, less than 5 percent of published books are made accessible in formats that reading disabled people can use. In many developing countries the figure drops to one per cent. We call this a “book famine”.


In theory, reading disabled people can read any book a non-reading disabled person can read, thanks to so-called “accessible formats”. These formats do not change the content of a work, but rather the way in which the person reading accesses it. They include large print audio, Daisy [http://www.daisy.org/] and braille.


What is certain is that the market has failed to deliver anything like this ideal scenario, despite the best efforts over many years of campaigning organisations like ours and of some examples of “best practice” from publishers.

The five per cent figure shows that mainstream publishing, which quite legitimately exists to make a profit, has not catered for the “reading disabled market” to any significant extent. To hope therefore that “market forces” will resolve the book famine problem would be to put faith in a tried and thus far failed model.

This, then, is the reality of "modern" copyright: it fails to serve huge numbers of people, many of whom are already suffering from discrimination in other ways.

Given this situation, various organisations are not unreasonably trying to facilitate access to copyrighted works for those who are visually disabled with a new WIPO treaty that would define basic rights for this group. Who could object to such a humanitarian cause? Well, the publishers, of course.

The RNIB explores the reasons for this:

At WIPO, broadly speaking, rights holders and some Member States maintain that the solution can be found entirely through the use of voluntary, cooperative measures between rights holders and members of the reading disabled community. They therefore “back” the WIPO Stakeholder Platform and oppose the treaty proposal.


A worldly observer might therefore suggest that opposition to a treaty stems more from a dislike of any kind of exception to copyright, than from a conviction that a treaty would not help increase access to books.

A worldly observer might indeed - just as an equally wordly observer might suggest that publishers don't give a damn about those with visual impairments, and are prepared to fight tooth nail against even the blind to preserve their intellectual monopolies.

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tzs said...

Note that in the US, it is not a violation of copyright for a non-profit organization to make and distribute braille or audio versions of copyright works for the blind. See 17 USC 121.

Glyn Moody said...

@tzs: but it says "if such copies or phonorecords are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities", which seems to rule out generally text to voice programs, which might be used by others...