17 May 2013

Why are Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle Backing the Fight *Against* the Blind?

One of the more disgraceful examples of the inherent selfishness of the copyright world is that it has consistently blocked a global treaty that would make it easier for the blind and visually impaired to read books in formats like Braille. The thinking seems to be that it's more important to preserve copyright "inviolate" than to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

You can read the disgusting details of how publishers have fought against the "proposed international instrument on limitations and exceptions for persons with print disabilities" for *30* years in an column I wrote back in 2011.

Amazingly, things have got even worse since then, with most of the fault lying at the feet of the US and EU, which are more concerned about placating their publishing industries than helping the poor and disabled around the world. And just when you think it can't get any worse, it does:

In a May 14, 2013 letter signed by Markus Beyrer, a Brussels based corporate lobby group known as Business Europe has sent a letter to Commissioners Michel Barnier and Karel De Gucht opposing the WIPO treaty on copyright exceptions for persons who are blind or have other disabilities. .... Business Europe describes itself as "the main horizontal business organization at the EU level." It represents 41 national business organizations in 35 European countries, claiming to promote "growth and competitiveness in Europe." Below is a list of the 55 member companies on its Corporate Advisory and Support Group, which describes its main constituency.

What readers of this blog may find most of interest are the names of the companies from the computer industry that are supporting this move to deny the blind even the smallest solace. Here are the main ones:


These are companies that often like to present themselves as decent and caring organizations whose pursuit of profit is balanced by a deep respect for fundamental human values. But their support here for the Business Europe lobbying group and its attempt to make it even harder for the blind to gain belatedly basic human rights like being able to read books – something that most of us are able to take for granted - is simply unacceptable.

I therefore call on Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle to dissociate themselves from the Business Europe group and its attempt to keep blind people in their darkness. If those companies refuse, we will know that their claims to any kind of humanity are shams, and should treat them with the contempt that they deserve.

13 May 2013

How Publishers Have Fought Against the Treaty for the Blind

One of the most disgraceful manifestations of the callousness of copyright maximalists is their 30-year refusal to countenance any meaningful kind of exception for blind users to convert texts into readable forms. Here's the background:

Even in 2013, blind people and others living with a print disability such as those with dyslexia still have very limited access to books. Only some 7% of published books are ever made accessible (in formats such as Braille, audio and large print) in the richest countries, and less than 1% in poorer ones. This is a “book famine”.

And here's what Fred Schroeder, First Vice President of the World Blind Union, said about the current state of the negotiations to change that:

The purpose of this treaty is to ensure access to books for blind people and help end the “book famine” we face. WBU is alarmed that some of the negotiators have focused their efforts almost exclusively on crafting language around copyright protections that have nothing to do with the ability of authorized entities to produce books for the blind and visually impaired. The shift away from a treaty for the blind to a treaty focussed on rights holder protections has taken up precious negotiating time which should be directed at ensuring a treaty that makes it possible for materials to be shared internationally.

I was naturally interested to find out what the UK's publishers had been doing on this front, so I put in a FOI request to the UK government:

I would be grateful if you could please supply me with the following information. 
Emails, letters and any other written communications from the last six months, between the Publishers Association or representatives of UK publishers, and the Intellectual Property Office, on the subject of the WIPO treaty for the blind (formally, the "Treaty to facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities".)

You can find the full reply here; this is what KEI's Jamie Love wrote about the emails that were made available to me:

Overall, the emails deal extensively with publisher opposition to fair use (fair use is mentioned 40 times), and promotion of commercial availability and requests that the treaty include restrictive three-step test language (even while asserting that other treaties and agreements already mandate the three step test for all copyright exceptions). The emails also demonstrate the close cooperation and communication between the IPO and the publishers in the negotiations.

Although it's frustrating not to be able to see more, the emails provide a handy reminder just how much the UK government is willing to work with publishers to place obstacles in the way of the blind gaining access to even a fraction of the materials that sighted people are fortunate enough to access.

You would have thought that any caring human being would gladly support moves to alleviate the massive suffering this book famine causes to hundreds of millions of visually impaired people across the world, but apparently there are some who are immune to these feelings, because they regard preserving copyright's oppressive intellectual monopoly as far more important than helping the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged.

I find that desperately sad - and further proof of the harm that copyright inflicts on society as a whole, and particularly on the most vulnerable. 

03 May 2013

Please Help Save Open Source Seeds Now

Seeds have much in common with code.  Indeed, I wrote an entire book about how genomics parallels the world of software.  In particular, they suffer from the same problem: patents.  Patents give control over key technologies, which makes the corresponding commons even more valuable for the freedom it offers.

And alongside open source code, there are open source seeds.  These are those that have been developed over thousands of years by nameless farmers, and are owned by no one.  Anyone can sell them, or use them to develop new seeds.  They form part of humanity's greatest heritage.  And yet an ill-advised European regulation threats to consign open source seeds to the dustbin of history.

I've written a detailed explanation of what the issues are over on Techdirt.  Here I'd like to concentrate on what we can do about it.  Basically, we need to contact the European Commissioners before Monday, asking them not to take this step.  Here are their email addresses:

Viviane.Reding@ec.europa.eu, joaquin.almunia@ec.europa.eu, Siim.Kallas@ec.europa.eu, Neelie.Kroes@ec.europa.eu, Antonio.Tajani@ec.europa.eu, Maros.sefcovic@ec.europa.eu, Olli.Rehn@ec.europa.eu, Janez.Potocnik@ec.europa.eu, Andris.Piebalgs@ec.europa.eu, Michel.Barnier@ec.europa.eu, Androulla.Vassiliou@ec.europa.eu, Algirdas.semeta@ec.europa.eu, karel.de-gucht@ec.europa.eu, Maire.Geoghegan-Quinn@ec.europa.eu, Janusz.Lewandowski@ec.europa.eu, Maria.Damanaki@ec.europa.eu, Kristalina.Georgieva@ec.europa.eu, Johannes.Hahn@ec.europa.eu, Connie.Hedegaard@ec.europa.eu, stefan.Fule@ec.europa.eu, Laszlo.Andor@ec.europa.eu, Cecilia.Malmstrom@ec.europa.eu, Dacian.Ciolos@ec.europa.eu, Tonio.Borg@ec.europa.eu

I'm sorry for the extremely short notice, but I found out about this just a few weeks ago, and have been trying to get my head around what is really going on.  Basically, this would give control of Europe's food supply to the multinational giants like Monsanto, and ensure that our food is increasingly "owned" through the presence of patents.  That's insane for the reasons that I note below.

Here's what I've sent off:

I am writing to you to urge you to object to the regulation of the licensing and sale of seeds, which I believe you will consider next week. 
Although I appreciate that the impulse behind this was laudable enough – to ensure that plant material that is available in the EU is safe, and that problems can be tracked back to their source – the way it is being implemented seems fraught with problems. 
First, there is the huge bureaucratic burden that is being imposed upon seed suppliers. These will fall especially hard on small and medium-sized enterprises, a group that I know you are keen to promote.

Perhaps even worse, it will mean that thousands of ancient varieties that are unencumbered and in the public domain will never be registered or certified, and thus will fall out of use. That is a terrible loss of thousands of years of European culture – civilisation was built on seeds, which made cities and all that they bring possible.
That will result in a loss of diversity at a time when European agriculture is facing unprecedented challenges thanks to climate change. The seed licensing proposals make it likely that fewer, less varied seeds will be used; this will make food supply in Europe far less resilient, and more vulnerable to diseases. It will also make European farmers dependent on a small group of large seed suppliers who will be able to exercise oligopoly power with all that this implies for pricing and control. 
Finally, these changes will result in tens of millions of ordinary citizens across Europe – the ones who delight in the simple pleasures of gardening – finding themselves limited in the seeds that they can buy and sow. At the very least this is likely to lead to an increasing disillusionment with the European project, something that we all would wish to avoid at a time when many are expressing their doubts on this score. 
In summary, I ask you to reject the regulation in its current form, and to insist that it be modified to allow Europe ancient seed heritage to be preserved and enjoyed by future generations, and to ensure that European agriculture remains strong and independent.   

 Please help if you can: this is important.