Despite our otherwise imperfect record in recognising the rights of people with disabilities, it is a matter of some pride that India’s copyright law anticipates the Marrakesh Treaty of the World Intellectual Property Organisation that has now legalised the right to read for an estimated 314 million blind and print disabled. The most notable common provision in the new treaty and India’s copyright law is the waiver of prior approval from authors and publishers for the reproduction and distribution of works into any alternative format, precluding commercial gain. This could, at least in theory, open up access to an unprecedented variety of published works to the blind and print disabled and enable a qualitatively new and real-time reading and learning experience. Public libraries should seize on this huge new avenue and cater to the needs of this hitherto largely unserved segment of the population. It is only through such interventions that there could be any realistic chance of realising the lofty objectives of universal and inclusive education. The other key provision in the Marrakesh Treaty is for the cross-border exchange of accessible formats of books. This move is truly path-breaking because exchanges between countries in the past were foreclosed given that copyright law is territorial. The new arrangement should lead to an increase in the overall number of works available in accessible formats, as service-providers around the world can share texts and eliminate duplication. Cross-country exchanges would also contribute to a more judicious utilisation of scarce resources in terms of trained manpower and other material. After all, in addition to public provision of services for the disabled, the voluntary sector continues to remain a key partner in this area. Guarantees under the treaty to protect the legitimate interests of authors and publishers should be scrupulously enforced. Such safeguards would be no less in the interest of the treaty’s intended beneficiaries, whose ultimate concern would be for a proliferation of accessible formats.
The impetus for the Marrakesh treaty was no doubt occasioned by the 2007 U.N. Convention for persons with disabilities. But global efforts to extend the scope of the Berne exceptions and limitations for the benefit of the blind and print disabled go back three decades. The upshot was the domestic legislation that currently obtains in some 57 countries to create alternative access to print. An ideal scenario would be one where all published works could be accessed in multiple formats and are also available in bookstalls and libraries. Such a world would perhaps remain elusive for a long time to come; but the dream is worthwhile.