The European Blind Union EBU is an organization that aims to protect and promote the interests of all blind and partially-sighted people in Europe. They are calling on the European Council and Commission to support an international treaty to make it easier for non-profit organizations to convert books into formats that can be read by blind and visually impaired people.
Members of the European Parliament have signed a letter supporting the EBU in its call for such a treaty. I support it as well, so I republish the letter here:
Letter in support of a Treaty for Visually Impaired and Print Disabled People
Many millions of EU citizens, such as blind or dyslexic people, have a disability which prevents them from reading standard sized print. They can read the same books as the rest of the EU’s citizens, but require “accessible formats” of these books, such as large print, audio or braille. However, publishers rarely make such books, and so it is mostly left to charities to do so with scarce resources. As a result, only some five per cent of published works are ever made available in accessible formats. This is a “book famine”.
There is an ongoing and unmet need for international copyright law to be changed, so that organisations in the EU which make accessible books can legally share their collection with others in countries outside the EU, and vice-versa. That would increase the number of accessible books available to print disabled EU citizens and to people in other countries who share a language with an EU Member State.
The Commission has sponsored a Memorandum of Understanding to help tackle this problem. It was signed on 14th September 2010 by rights holder and disability organisations, and is a laudable and hopefully worthwhile initiative.
The MOU has the potential to improve voluntary licensing schemes and the accessibility of technology. However, it does not cover the exchange of accessible books between EU and non-EU countries. This means for example that print disabled people in the UK will not benefit from the large numbers of accessible books in the USA as a result of the MOU, nor will Spain be able to send its accessible catalogue of books to Latin America under the agreement.
The MOU also relies on cooperation with rights holders. The law must ensure a safety net for the many instances where such cooperation is not provided. The MOU cannot therefore be used as a reason for refusing to support a binding international legal solution to the “book famine”.
The World Blind Union has drafted a proposal for a World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) treaty which can tackle this problem. That proposal was tabled at WIPO by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay in May 2009. However, the EU opposed it.
At WIPO in June 2010 the EU proposed a more limited and non-binding voluntary instrument, which met with no approval from the many disabled people’s NGOs as they considered it as an ineffective tool for ending ”book famine”.
We call upon the European Commission and EU Member States to live up to their responsibilities under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The way to do this is to work actively and positively with other WIPO Member States to agree a binding legal norm, based on the treaty proposal drafted by the World Blind Union and tabled at WIPO in 2009.
The EBU has also prepared a more in-depth briefing about the need for such a treaty. Click to download the Briefing on WIPO treaty for MEPs October_2010.
This is an issue that really should have been solved by yesterday, as there are no sensible arguments at all for denying blind people access to books in formats that they can read, when there are people and organizations willing to do work of converting the books into accessible formats. Yet the issue has been under discussion for several decades already, with very little progress being made.
This is because the book publishers and their organizations oppose such a treaty, and European governments (like for instance the Swedish one) prefer to listen to the publisher’s lobbyists rather than the organizations representing the visually impaired citizens. This is a disgrace.
The European Union and the Member States should change their positions immediately, and start supporting the treaty. The book publisher’s opposition to the treaty is not just immoral, it’s outright silly as well.
Visually impaired people should have the right to read just like everybody else, without being hindered by artificial obstacles created by today’s copyright legislation.