US, Developing Countries at Odds over Potential Treaty for the Blind

9 June 2010

Delegates at the World Intellectual Property Organization continued their work to establish a new mechanism to help the visually impaired gain access to books and other reading materials at consultations on 26 and 27 May. Those discussions will be ramped up at the next meeting of the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), which will take place later this month.

Visually impaired persons have complained in recent years about the extremely low number of books that are available to them in accessible formats, even in the richest countries. This "book famine" is amplified by the fact that because copyright exceptions are national in scope, one book might be transcribed into Braille by several specialised organisations in different countries, even if those countries have a common language.

In May 2009, Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay, joined later by Mexico, submitted to the SCCR a draft treaty proposal (WIPO document SCCR/18/5), prepared by the World Blind Union (WBU), to facilitate trade in copyright-protected works in formats accessible to persons with print disabilities to ease restrictions by copyright law.

Building on this proposal, Ecuador, acting on behalf of the co-sponsors, tabled a proposal for a timetable for the adoption of the suggested WIPO treaty. The timetable envisages negotiations of the text during the next three sessions of the SCCR, a diplomatic conference in 2011, and the potential adoption of the treaty in the spring of 2012.

Several countries - including Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and Venezuela - took the floor to reaffirm their support for a WIPO treaty and to express their support of the timetable presented by Ecuador.

In another important development, the US presented a draft proposal for a "Consensus Instrument," as opposed to a treaty. The instrument would call on WIPO member states to allow Braille versions of published works that are made pursuant to an exception, limitation, or other special provision of the member's copyright law to be imported and exported without the authorisation of the owner of the copyright. Importation and exportation would also be allowed through trusted intermediaries for any other special format copy of a published work made pursuant to a similar provision.

The US delegation indicated that the draft "Consensus Instrument" reflected its willingness to come up with "pragmatic solutions" to meet the needs of people with print disabilities.

Brazil, however, said that the US proposal did not go far enough. The Brazilian delegation reiterated that, because its treaty proposal was drafted by the WBU, it reflects the interests of the parties that stand to benefit from a new policy. According to Brazil, a "Consensus Instrument" falls short of the main objective of the draft treaty as it would not be a legally binding instrument. After outlining specific shortcomings of the US proposal, Brazil concluded, "[...] Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Paraguay are not in a position to favour any ‘consensus instrument' that will fall short of the aspirations of visually impaired persons and of our own pledges to granting them the right to read."

Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) and other NGOs that support the treaty proposal stressed that non-binding recommendations do not go far enough to address the problems raised by copyright restrictions faced by people with print disabilities.

At the meeting's close, the chair of the consultations indicated that there was a strong support for an international treaty. He also noted that delegations had demonstrated flexibility in their approaches, as well as a renewed engagement to move forward on the matter during the next SCCR meeting, which will be held from 21 to 25 June.

ICTSD reporting.

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