International treaty to make books accessible to the blind

It would make it legal to send accessible books across borders

December 20, 2012 02:20 am | Updated 02:20 am IST - CHENNAI

In a move that is likely to take more books closer to some 285 million people in the world, the Extraordinary General Assembly of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) has referred the Treaty for Visually Impaired Persons to a diplomatic conference in June of 2013.

The treaty would allow specialist organisations to make accessible copies of books in all signatory countries; make it legal to send accessible books across national borders and make more books available for the blind.

There are an estimated 285 million blind and partially-sighted people in the world, of which the largest percentage lives in India. Like everyone else, blind people need books for education, pleasure and inclusion in society, but unlike others, these books are not accessible to them.

Books have to be converted into ‘accessible formats’ — audio, Braille, or large print — for the visually impaired. However, the fact is that about only 1 to 7 per cent of all books published are available in these formats.

“In many countries, the copyright laws prevent making accessible copies of the books, or importing them from nations where it is available,” said Rahul Cherian Jacob, who heads the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy. He helped in drafting the Treaty and is the legal adviser to the World Blind Union on the Treaty.

Some developed nations have huge budgets that would allow them to make books in accessible formats. For instance, the U.S. had about $400 million a year to spend on making such books, while countries like India have very little funds available for the purpose, he said. Even if these books were available in the U.S., they were not accessible in India, because of import restrictions.

Sam Taraporevala, Director of the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged and vice president and chairman policy formulation, Daisy Forum of India, said this could not have come at a better time for India. It was in last June that the amendment to the Copyright Act was passed, making a special exception to make accessible books.

G.R. Raghavender, Registrar, Copyrights, told The Hindu , “While the WIPO treaty looks at the blind and print-disabled, in June, Parliament introduced wider exceptions for physically disabled. Authorised entities will be allowed to produce accessible versions of books on a not-for-profit-basis without seeking for special permissions.”

However, even with this, owing to import restrictions, books already available in accessible formats in other countries could not be brought into India. They would have to be reprinted, Mr. Jacob noted.

“This is the real benefit of the treaty if it kicks in,” Dr. Taraporevala said. Books could be sent across nations without restrictions, and this would mean a significant increase in the number of books available.

“However, what we do need to move towards a scenario where publishers will attempt to move towards equal opportunity publishing. The ideal scenario will be to make available every book that is published in accessible formats. Hopefully if all goes well, there will be something on the ground by the end of next year,” he said.

The Cabinet should give the nod for India signing and ratifying the international treaty for it to come into force. However, given the overwhelming positive reception to the recent amendment to the Copyright Act, getting approval would not be an issue, rights activists said.

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