The treaty will make access to books for the visually impaired, blind and print disabled easier

On Friday, in the same city that established the World Trade Organisation nearly two decades ago, another significant treaty was born. In Marrakesh, Morocco, international negotiators signed a treaty that will make access to books for the visually impaired, blind and print disabled easier.

After a week of intense debate among the negotiators (facilitated by the World Intellectual Property Organisation), the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled emerged.

It will address the ‘book famine’ for the visually impaired by “requiring its contracting parties to adopt national law provisions that permit the reproduction, distribution and making available of published works in accessible formats through limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright right holders.” Very simply, it allows the waiver of copyright restrictions in order for books to be available in formats such as formats such as Braille, large print text and audio books.

Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society, in his closing remarks said: “It is historic that today WIPO and its members have collectively recognised in a treaty that copyright isn't just an ‘engine of free expression’ but can pose a significant barrier to access to knowledge.”

To recognise that copyright should not frustrate access for some groups of people and thereby to free books from that ‘constraint’ is of immeasurable significance for people otherwise unable to access books in the conventional format.

The treaty also provides assurances to authors and publishers that that system will not expose their published works to misuse or distribution to anyone other than the intended beneficiaries. “There are no winners and no losers, this is a treaty for everyone,” said Moroccan Minister of Communications Mustapha Khalfi, going on to describe it as the “Miracle in Marrakesh.”

There are an estimated 285 million blind and partially-sighted people in the world, of which the largest percentage lives in India. Only 1 to 7 per cent of all books published are available in formats accessible to them. India’s key campaigner for the treaty, the late Rahul Cherian of Inclusive Planet was full of beans when he spoke to The Hindu in December last year, anticipating the possibility of a treaty half a year later.

“It is a breakthrough!” he said excitedly as he broke the news, “The Extraordinary General Assembly of the World Intellectual Property Organisation has referred the Treaty for Visually Impaired Persons to a diplomatic conference in June of 2013.”

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