Blind people are not allowed to read books that are available in Braille or other accessible formats, if the book has been converted in a country other than the one they live in.
For example, blind people in Britain are not allowed to read US Braille books, and blind people in the US are not allowed to read British books. Blind people in Sweden are not allowed to read English Braille books from either Britain or the US.
The reason for this is our copyright legislation. There are exceptions to copyright that allow non-profit organizations to make books accessible to visually impaired people, without the publisher’s consent. But these exceptions are all on the national level.
If a book exists in an accessible format in one country, the publisher’s consent is still needed to export the accessible book. But in practice, the book publishers typically refuse to give that consent. The result is a shortage of books in accessible formats, especially in the developing world, but here in Europe as well.
The blind peoples’ organizations call this the ”book famine”.
The solution to this problem would be to have an international treaty saying that when a non-profit organization has converted a book in one country, visually impaired people in other countries may read it as well.
The World Blind Union has drafted such an treaty, and tabled it at the World Intellectual Property Organization WIPO in 2009. But the book publishers’ associations are opposed to it. They want to keep the voluntary nature of the arrangements that exist today, even though it means blind people are not allowed to read books from other countries.
The European Union has unfortunately sided with the book publishers, and is opposed to a treaty in WIPO. The resistance to the treaty comes from the Commission and from many or all of the member states (including, for example, Sweden).
I think this is a disgrace. The book publishers would not even lose any money from setting the accessible books free, since they do not actually sell any accessible versions of their books themselves. But even if they did, the interests of visually impaired people all over the world would take precedence.
Not solving this problem immediately is just plain immoral.
The EU Parliament is right now working on an own initiative report called Unlocking the potential of the cultural and creative industries. It is a wide-ranging report on many different aspects of the cultural industries, but the issue of solving the book famine fits in there.
Together with my colleague MEP Eva Lichtenberger (Greens, AT) I have tabled the following amendment to the report in the legal affairs committee JURI:
5 a (new). Stresses the need to finally address the ”book famine” experienced by visually impaired and print disabled people; reminds the Commission and Member States of their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy access to cultural materials in accessible formats, and to ensure that laws protecting intellectual property rights do not constitute an unreasonable or discriminatory barrier to access by persons with disabilities to cultural materials; calls on the Commission to work actively and positively within the World Intellectual Property Organization WIPO to agree on a binding legal norm, based on the treaty proposal drafted by the World Blind Union and tabled at WIPO in 2009;
In the best of worlds, this would not be controversial at all. The first sentence says that we need to solve the book famine problem. I hope everybody agrees with that.
The second sentence is just cut-and-paste from Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Most or all of the EU member states have signed this convention, so it ought to be uncontroversial that we should abide by it. Intellectual property laws may not be used as unreasonable barriers against disabled people.
And the last sentence is just what the European Blind Union EBU is proposing as a solution to the problem. It is a reasoned and balanced proposal, and I would have hoped that all political institutions would support it wholeheartedly without any further prompting.
But the political reality is not quite that easy.
If the amendment has made it through both JURI and CULT, it will be part of the report Unlocking the potential of the cultural and creative industries when that report is voted in plenary some time later this spring.
If the report is adopted with the amendment, this will be the official position of the European Parliament. From there, the next step will be to put pressure on the EU Commission and the Member States to start supporting the treaty.
At the EBU website, you can read more about the European Commission’s opposition to a binding treaty.
It is a long way to go, but we have to start somewhere. The EU’s current opposition to a WIPO treaty for visually impaired and print disabled people is a disgrace. It’s time to change it.