Friday, May 29, 2009

USA joins international group trying to block blind people, people with reading disabilities from accessible digital texts

From James Love, Director, Knowledge Ecology International, at The Huffington Post:

I am attending a meeting in Geneva of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). This evening the United States government, in combination with other high income countries in "Group B" is seeking to block an agreement to discuss a treaty for persons who are blind or have other reading disabilities.

The proposal for a treaty is supported by a large number of civil society NGOs, the World Blind Union, the National Federation of the Blind in the US, the International DAISY Consortium, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D), Bookshare.Org, and groups representing persons with reading disabilities all around the world.

The main aim of the treaty is to allow the cross-border import and export of digital copies of books and other copyrighted works in formats that are accessible to persons who are blind, visually impaired, dyslexic or have other reading disabilities, using special devices that present text as refreshable braille, computer generated text to speech, or large type. These works, which are expensive to make, are typically created under national exceptions to copyright law that are specifically written to benefit persons with disabilities.

The number of accessible works is very small everywhere, relative to what "sighted" persons can read. However, in developing countries, the collections are super small, and even in the USA, access to works in languages other than English is practically non-existent.

Under the current international legal regime, there is almost no sharing of these works across borders. The treaty would change that, vastly expanding the availability of works to all persons who are blind or have other reading disabilities.

Every regional group in the developing world expressed support for advancing work on this proposal, as part of a broader agenda on access to knowledge and the protection of consumer interests.

The opposition from the United States and other high income countries is due to intense lobbying from a large group of publishers that oppose a "paradigm shift," where treaties would protect consumer interests, rather than expand rights for copyright owners.

The Obama Administration was lobbied heavily on this issue, including meetings with high level White House officials. Assurances coming into the negotiations this week that things were going in the right direction have turned out to be false, as the United States delegation has basically read from a script written by lobbyists for publishers, extolling the virtues of market based solutions, ignoring mountains of evidence of a "book famine" and the insane legal barriers to share works.

Last week Obama worked with PhRMA to kill a Medical R&D Treaty at the World Health Organization. This week he is trying to kill a treaty for blind and reading disabled persons. This is not encouraging.