WIPO Copyright Body Takes up Limitations and Exceptions, with a Focus on the Visually Impaired

3 June 2009

The recently concluded meeting of WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), 25-29 May, took up issues such as a new treaty for blind and visually impaired persons, in addition to its ongoing work on limitations and exceptions as well as on the protection of audio-visual performances and of broadcasting organisations.
Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay tabled a draft treaty on limitations and exceptions for the blind and visually impaired. It is the first time, in recent years, that a group of countries has proposed a treaty at WIPO that, rather than expanding the scope of intellectual property protection, seeks to strengthen the rights of users and consumers– in this case, the blind and visually impaired. After intense discussions, it was agreed that the proposal from Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay, together with proposals made by other countries, will be discussed at the next session of the Committee.
The proposed treaty was elaborated and first presented by the World Blind Union (WBU) at the session of the WIPO Copyright committee held last November. The WBU is a non-governmental organisation established in 1984 representing over 160 million blind and partially sighted persons in 177 countries.
Access by the blind and the visually impaired to works protected by copyright has been a long-standing issue on the international copyright agenda. As early as 1982, WIPO and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation set up a working group to examine the matter.
According to its proponents, the treaty is urgently needed to provide a minimum standard for limitations and exceptions for the blind and the visually impaired as well as to allow and encourage the export and import of works published in accessible formats. They pointed out that in developed countries less than 5 percent of published books are accessible to persons who are blind or visually impaired, and access in developing countries is often even more limited.
The proponents also highlighted that by undertaking such an initiative, WIPO would act in accordance with the efforts of the United Nations to address the needs for enhancing, access to knowledge for the most vulnerable or socially prioritised sectors. In particular, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which entered into force in  2008, states in Article 9 that “..States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications...”
Developing countries and non-governmental organisations widely supported the discussion of the proposed treaty. Brazil, in introducing it, emphasised that it represented an example of norm-setting in the field of limitations and exceptions to copyrights for persons with disabilities, for libraries and archives, for educational activities and for fostering technological innovations.
According to a Brazilian delegate the “objective is to set a precedent in intellectual property norm-setting, through an instrument on limitations and exceptions relating to  the rights of users and addressing, in this case, the needs of blind and visually impaired persons for access to copyrighted works.”
African countries emphasised during the discussions that the proposed treaty should be considered as just one part of a more global and inclusive framework that would also include limitations and exceptions for education, research and libraries. Ultimately, the Committee reaffirmed its commitment to work “without delay” on the basis of “a global and inclusive approach.”

Developed countries, including the United States, European countries, Canada and Australia, recognised the problems faced by the blind and the visually impaired in accessing copyrighted works and indicated their readiness to find effective and practical solutions to complex problems. However, they were more circumspect about the proposed treaty. They indicated that deliberations on such an instrument would be premature. Some of them argued for the need to examine other measures at the national and regional levels to address the access problems raised.
Publishers’ organisations were concerned about treaty provisions relating to the cross-border distribution of accessible works that would be created under copyright limitations and exceptions.
In addition, they pointed to the importance of the work carried out in the context of WIPO’s Stakeholders Platform which has met twice in January and April 2009. These meetings brought together major stakeholders, including representatives of copyright holders and reading impaired persons, to explore the specific needs, concerns, and possible approaches to facilitating access to works in formats suitable for people with reading impairment.
The Committee welcomed the Platform Interim Report and encouraged the WIPO Secretariat to continue the work of the Platform. The WBU and other treaty proponents consider the work the Platform is doing on technological tools and standards important and necessary but complementary to efforts to conclude a treaty and not a substitute for it. The Committee requested the Secretariat to make its best efforts to organise a meeting of the platform in developing countries. 
Exceptions and limitations in general
Apart from the proposed treaty for the blind and visually impaired, it is expected that the Committee’s next session will examine a study on limitations and exceptions for the benefit of educational activities, including distance education and the trans-border aspect thereof, in particular for developing and least developed countries. Countries were also invited to comment on a draft questionnaire on limitations and exceptions which would be addressed to all WIPO member states with a view of its final approval at the Committee’s next session.
Many of these activities result from a March 2008 proposal made by a number of developing countries - Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua and Uruguay – that advanced the need to undertake further work on limitations and exceptions in the context of the Copyright Committee.  
Audiovisual performances and broadcasting organisations
Despite the little progress that was made in overcoming differences on the protection of audio-visual performances and of broadcasting organisations, these issues will remain on the Committee’s agenda for its next session.
In relation to audiovisual performances, Member States requested the Secretariat to prepare a background document on the main questions and positions as well as to organise in Geneva, informal, open-ended consultations on possible solutions to the current deadlock.
In relation to broadcasting organisations, the Secretariat will commission a study on the socio-economic dimension of the unauthorised use of signals, including the impact of the lack of access on the one hand and the need for an effective protection of broadcasters on the other hand. Upon the request of member states or regional groups, the Secretariat will organise regional and national seminars on the objectives, specific scope and object of protection of a possible draft treaty.
ICTSD reporting. “WIPO Limitations & Exceptions Treaty Advances; Audiovisual Treaty Gets New Life,” IP-WATCH, 30 May 2009.

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