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. 

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