India and other developing countries support such a legally binding treaty

The European Union is holding up a treaty to allow books and other printed works to be converted into a format accessible to the visually impaired and other print disabled people without seeking the permission of the copyright holder.

India, and most other developing countries, strongly support such a legally binding treaty currently being negotiated at a World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) meeting in Geneva. However, non-governmental organisation sources at that summit say that the EU is stalling the treaty by placing unreasonable restrictions on how copyrighted works are to be converted, and by whom. The EU office in Delhi and Brussels did not respond to a request for comment on their position.

“[The treaty] would allow organisations working for the blind to import and export accessible works without seeking the copyright holder's permission, since very little money is spent in developing countries on converting books into accessible formats, while they are much more readily available elsewhere,” according to Pranesh Prakash of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society who is attending the summit as an NGO member. If the treaty is not finalised by Wednesday, when the meeting ends, disabled people could be forced to wait till 2014 for their next chance.

Last week, Indian delegate G.R. Raghavender pleaded with negotiators to finalise the treaty without further delay “so that we won't go back, especially the Indian delegation won't go back empty-handed, facing the 15 million blind people in India, which is almost 50 percent of the world blind population, that is 37 million.”

In fact, the treaty will benefit a much larger group of print-disabled, including those who suffer from motor disabilities which prevent them from holding a book, or learning disabilities such as dyslexia, or autism, which make it hard to read. There are approximately 70 million print-disabled people in India.

Accessible formats would include Braille, electronic text and audio versions of books, making Western publishers' jittery about piracy fears. Hence, some countries are demanding stringent tracking mechanisms and legal requirements that activists say will effectively block access to disabled people in developing countries — where more than 85 per cent of them live.

“An instrument that subjects the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms by persons with visual impairments to market forces and bureaucratic practices will not work,” Mr. Prakash said, in his statement to WIPO delegates. “In India, our Parliament recently passed an amendment to our copyright law that grants persons with disabilities, and those who are working for them, a strong yet simply-worded right to have equal access to copyrighted works as sighted persons.”

In fact, the EU Parliament had given its unanimous approval to the treaty in February 2012. “It would be a democratic travesty if the EU’s representatives here today posed any problems to a clear road map for a binding international treaty, especially by posing unrealistic proposals with regards to authorised entities and other issues very far from consensus positions in the WIPO and in clear contradiction with the aims of the World Blind Union,” said David Hammerstein, a representative of American and European consumer organisations, making a statement at the Geneva meeting.

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