The heavy hand of commerce has dealt a blow to the efforts of blind and disabled people around the world to get reading materials in special formats excluded from copyright restrictions. The United States and the European Union have resisted the move to adopt a legally binding treaty under the World Intellectual Property Organisation, aimed at helping the disabled. Such a treaty would facilitate the creation and international distribution of books for people with visual impairment, or forms of disability that prevent them from reading printed text. Books in Braille, electronic text or audio format could then be produced without copyright restrictions and shipped to millions of disabled individuals around the world, particularly in developing countries. Regrettably, the affluent nations pressed on with their backward looking policy at the 24th session of the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights in Geneva. Under the shadow of lobbies, they have avoided a commitment to a binding treaty and postponed any progress to the next meeting of the SCCR. Only after it clears that hurdle can the text be put through the formal procedures of the WIPO for adoption. This is a disappointing negation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which call upon state parties to take all measures to provide access to cultural materials in accessible formats.
For nearly 285 million blind and vision impaired individuals in 190 countries, being able to access books in special formats such as Braille and audio books is essential for active participation in the community. India, with a large number of such individuals, has a lot more to do to make actual materials available, but it has taken the progressive step of amending its copyright law to allow special format production for the disabled. It must use its global voice in support of the developing countries, who look forward to an agreed text at the WIPO SCCR. That will pave the way for a diplomatic conference to be held in 2013, and the adoption of the agreement. Unless governments agree to remove copyright as a barrier to the creation of special format materials, visually impaired and disabled people will be prevented from leading rich and satisfying lives. It is shocking that the fear of marginal loss of revenue for publishers should be allowed to come in the way of basic human decency. The European Parliament has already recognised the importance of the proposed WIPO move and endorsed the call for limitations on copyright to help the blind and vision impaired; the EU officials, however, ignored that mandate at Geneva. The U.S. and the EU must stop blocking this path-breaking treaty.