Talks on a global treaty to give copyright exemptions for the blind and print disabled are inching close to fruition at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), notwithstanding sticky areas in the draft text. The half-a-decade-long negotiations at the relevant standing committee at the world body concluded last month, paving the way for a diplomatic conference in June in Morocco to fine-tune the law. Deliberations were deadlocked for months on the question of balancing the need to extend cross-border access to reading material with the interests of copyright holders. Developed nations have been lobbying hard for assurances that accessible formats of books were not already in circulation whenever fresh material is transferred to recipient states. Developing countries have legitimate concerns in terms of the practical difficulties that such monitoring — principally by non-government organisations — would entail. It is relevant to note here that many countries already have in place suitable amendments to their domestic copyright laws to address the special needs segment. It is thus a matter of establishing the mechanisms for applying the same principle internationally. Though concerns exist over the potential unauthorised use of copyright exemptions in the developing world, the rights of creators must be weighed against the larger interests of equity and justice. The harsh reality for disabled end-users the world over is that some 95 per cent of published literature today is beyond their reach.
The refusal by western countries, in particular the United States, to move forward on the treaty obviously has to do with concerns over the general lack of protection against piracy in the developing world. But the message from the WIPO talks in Geneva is also that the advanced world can’t ignore the needs of the disabled elsewhere for too long. With disability likely to figure high among global development priorities post-2015, the availability of accessible information would prove a key determinant of the educational and employment attainments of the disabled. Moreover, it does not stand to reason that while the rights of disabled people for access to the physical environment has acquired wide currency, access to published information and knowledge through accessible formats should continue to be denied.