USA, Canada and the EU attempt to kill treaty to protect blind people's access to written material

Update: Victory! -- the treaty proposal survived this meeting and will be back on the agenda at the next one. We've got a couple months to lobby our governments and make sure that the next time they show up, they don't embarrass us by opposing this.

Right now, in Geneva, at the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization, history is being made. For the first time in WIPO history, the body that creates the world's copyright treaties is attempting to write a copyright treaty dedicated to protecting the interests of copyright users, not just copyright owners.

At issue is a treaty to protect the rights of blind people and people with other disabilities that affect reading (people with dyslexia, people who are paralyzed or lack arms or hands for turning pages), introduced by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay. This should be a slam dunk: who wouldn't want a harmonized system of copyright exceptions that ensure that it's possible for disabled people to get access to the written word?

The USA, that's who. The Obama administration's negotiators have joined with a rogue's gallery of rich country trade representatives to oppose protection for blind people. Other nations and regions opposing the rights of blind people include Canada and the EU.

Update: Also opposing rights for disabled people: Australia, New Zealand, the Vatican and Norway.

Update 2: Countries that are on the right side of this include, "Latin American and Caribbean region including (Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Jamaica) as well as Asia and Africa."

Update 3: Canada is upset with me. That's fine, I'm upset with Canada.

Activists at WIPO are desperate to get the word out. They're tweeting madly from the negotiation (technically called the 18th session of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights) publishing editorials on the Huffington Post, etc.

Here's where you come in: this has to get wide exposure, to get cast as broadly as possible, so that it will find its way into the ears of the obscure power-brokers who control national trade-negotiators.

I don't often ask readers to do things like this, but please, forward this post to people you know in the US, Canada and the EU, and ask them to reblog, tweet, and spread the word, especially to government officials and activists who work on disabled rights. We know that WIPO negotiations can be overwhelmed by citizen activists -- that's how we killed the Broadcast Treaty negotiation a few years back -- and with your help, we can make history, and create a world where copyright law protects the public interest.

I am attending a meeting in Geneva of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). This evening the United States government, in combination with other high income countries in "Group B" is seeking to block an agreement to discuss a treaty for persons who are blind or have other reading disabilities.

The proposal for a treaty is supported by a large number of civil society NGOs, the World Blind Union, the National Federation of the Blind in the US, the International DAISY Consortium, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D), Bookshare.Org, and groups representing persons with reading disabilities all around the world.

The main aim of the treaty is to allow the cross-border import and export of digital copies of books and other copyrighted works in formats that are accessible to persons who are blind, visually impaired, dyslexic or have other reading disabilities, using special devices that present text as refreshable braille, computer generated text to speech, or large type. These works, which are expensive to make, are typically created under national exceptions to copyright law that are specifically written to benefit persons with disabilities...

The opposition from the United States and other high income countries is due to intense lobbying from a large group of publishers that oppose a "paradigm shift," where treaties would protect consumer interests, rather than expand rights for copyright owners.

The Obama Administration was lobbied heavily on this issue, including meetings with high level White House officials. Assurances coming into the negotiations this week that things were going in the right direction have turned out to be false, as the United States delegation has basically read from a script written by lobbyists for publishers, extolling the virtues of market based solutions, ignoring mountains of evidence of a "book famine" and the insane legal barriers to share works.

Obama Joins Group to Block Treaty for Blind and Other Reading Disabilities


Twitter feed for #sccr18


Pedro Paranaguá's notes in English and Brazilian Portuguese


  1. I couldn’t possibly be more disappointed by the Obama Administration. Hope, Openness, Freedom? Just buzzwords, hm?

    I am glad not to live in the USA.

    Greetings, LX

  2. I’d like to see at least some discussion on the reasons why they oppose it. This article is very biased. There are obviously very good reasons why what the US and other governments ar edoing is wrong, but that should stand up to a proper discussion.

  3. Wasn’t this the treaty that tried to establish a “gated community for the blind” through DRM?

    The implications of creating an exclusive channel to a part of the population at the expense of legitimizing their exclusion from primary sources of information do not appear to have been thought through.

  4. Thanks for the heads up. You should try and mirror some of the information available if you have it though. WIPO’s web site is as good as dead.

  5. I’m not sure it’s in my interest to help carve out exemptions for all the most sympathetic victims of the DMCA, while leaving the law still in place for the rest.

  6. What’s the Vatican’s interest in copyright maximalism? Did Big Copyright promise them that they’d be able to copyright the Gospels or use DMCA takedown notices against sexual abuse allegations or something?

  7. @#1: Yeah… This is the WIPO, so it’s affecting a majority of the worlds countries. Not just the US.

  8. Cory,

    I’m here at WIPO as well on behalf of FGV (Brazil) — it’s being an absurd not to agree on flexibilising copyrights for the blind, VI and print disabled persons!

    I’m spreading the word, twitting at (mostly in PT but anyone can easily understand it) and bloging at FGV’s A2K Brasil (PT and EN versions).



  9. Wow, this isn’t even on the radar in the NZ media. Quite frankly, I’m embarrassed for my country sometimes. *Sigh*

  10. @ACB: the Vatican does own copy rights on *translations* of the Gospels. How often do you read the original, public-domain Greek text? :) Even pre-war translations approved by the Catholic Church are hard to find (and even then, they are probably in Latin… it took a few thousand years for them to understand that “vulgar” languages might have been more popular). And consider that that wretched old book is, literally, one of the all-time bestsellers EVAR…

  11. Australia opposes? What’s your source for this? (I’m not questioning you, but I’m from Australia and I want to know which person/institution to pressure to change their mind.)

  12. Okay what about deaf people?

    English or another written language is often a barrier to deaf people (because it relies on auditory memory plus poor educational opportunity). So, what happens if they need the text translated into a sign language?

    Materials are increasingly broadcast in audio or video format. What happens if you need to ask a third party to transcribe the materials into written form? What if you need to ask a third party to subtitle something, because really most people cannot make their output accessible to begin with.

    The other thing that strikes me, this probably goes against the UN Convention of Persons with Disabilities (passed in 2006). One part of the UN doesn’t know what the other part is doing, and thus UN treaties have the potential of contradicting themselves! That’s going to make sound international law.

  13. “extolling the virtues of market based solutions”

    What they’re extolling doesn’t sound like a market-based solution to me. It sounds like they’re backing a the system of government-granted monopoly that is our current copyright system.

    “At issue is a treaty to protect the rights of blind people and people with other disabilities”

    It seeks to protect their rights only insofar as they’re human beings who should be able to enter into mutually voluntary exchange.

    So this sounds like something I fully support, but the spin in this article is a little strange. Weakening copyright, protecting free trade, opposing government-granted monopolies: it sounds like this is something every good free-market libertarian should support.

  14. @Laroquod “First they came for…” If you don’t stand up for the rights of your brothers and sisters, who will stand up for yours?

  15. “And ask them to reblog, tweet, and spread the word, especially to government officials and activists who work on disabled rights.”

    Any suggestions on how to find contact info for said government officials?

  16. “And ask them to reblog, tweet, and spread the word, especially to government officials and activists who work on disabled rights.”

    Any suggestions on how to find contact info for said government officials?

  17. #1, me too and I voted for the guy. I mean, I still like him better than Hillary and McCain but he’s made it pretty clear he’s a politician after all. At least he’s nice to listen to.

    Back to the matter at hand, how do you all know this isn’t precisely what the disabled lobby WANTS? Oh, don’t worry about them, they’re disabled, they’re blind, they’re HARMLESS… if they’re so harmless why do they always keep giant dogs at their sides and carry cudgels!?

    Just kidding. This is all pretty terrible.

  18. @toyg — worth specifying that the Catholic church only holds copyrights on a select few Bible translations. The majority are either commercially owned or owned by church groups (NIV, ESV, NLV), or public domain (KJV). And then there’s the offbeat “it has to be free as in beer” custom copyright license on the NET translation…

    And I do read the Greek/Hebrew as much as possible. :-)

  19. If the Vatican had had everything their own way, always, the only way to access the Bible today would be to pay one of their Priests (= today’s DRM-locked e-reader?) to read it out loud to you (in Latin, or perhaps in Greek…it’d be their choice, eh?) at a time, place & price of their choosing.
    As they actually do control access to the vast & unique materials (and secrets?;)) in the Vatican Library, one perhaps ought not be too surprised at their jealousy over copyrights.
    I’m actually more surprised that Vatican City has a place set at this table at all:
    IMHO if you can properly recognize Vatican City as a sovereign state (as the Reagan Administration did), there’s no intellectual barrier to recognizing any corporation whatsoever (eg Exxon, Time-Warner, or Goldman Sachs) as a similarly sovereign state.

  20. I’m currently contacting my local literacy council. This affects their ability to help people, so they are automatically stakeholders. They also have experience with media relations, so they have a means to affect change.

  21. FYI, what they want is legal standing to create a universal (multi-country) library of special-format accessible books. This fight is not over whether such libraries may exist within individual countries.

    DAISY is the global standard media type for accessible versions of books. We already have a copyright exemption for this format in the U.S. (referred to in the generic as a format for people with print impairments blah blah blah). What WBU and others want is to extend the exemption uniformly to other countries so they can create efficient megaglibraries, or even just efficient search and download, for blind and dyslexic people.

    You won’t see DAISY books in the mainstream, but that’s part of what the publishers are worried about (or that tools might be used to strip the audio out of DAISY books to make MP3 versions). DAISY does not have a standard DRM though various systems exist for different libraries. The other part is just simple greed. They want to protect any possible revenue from the conventional recorded audio versions of books. See for info on the file format.

  22. Do you have a source for Norway’s support? I’d like to try to push this on the newspapers, a source would be handy.

  23. I don’t know who the fuck that Jaime Love guy is, but he sure as shit doesn’t represent this Canadian. I’m pretty embarrassed of my country right now.

  24. #22, that sense of shame and embarrassment you feel is just Canada becoming more like America. Pretty soon you’ll be buying a gun and watching NASCAR.

  25. @22: You’re confused — Jamie Love’s the good guy who’s fighting for good stuff. The Canadian reps are:

    Bruce COUCHMAN, Senior Legal Analyst, Copyright and International Intellectual Property Policy Directorate, Department of Industry, Ottawa

    Drew OLSEN, Director, Legislation and and Negotiations, Copyright Policy Branch, Deparment of Canadian Heritage, Ottawa

    Darren SMITH, Second Secretary, Permanent Mission, Geneva

  26. One person posts “WIPO #sccr18. Canada unhappy with Boing Boing. But can’t really explain position on treaty” on twitter and links back to this post, and you say “Canada is upset with me?”

  27. To be completely honest, I don’t understand a word of what’s going on with this thing. I wish someone would explain this to me in plain English.

  28. Sorry, Cory (and Jamie), the post wasn’t entirely clear. I stand by my embarrassment, though. This kind of shit is intolerable. I expect better from this country, but more and more often those expectations are let down.

  29. I agree with #22 & #23. As a Canadian, I felt pride in the fact that our country welcomes and fosters the inclusion of all people. People of all ethnicity, lifestyles and physical & mental capability. Or so I thought until I read this. Participation in blocking this treaty is a very Un-Canadian thing to do.

  30. I have just done my bit and asked my prime Minister why? Don’t expect a real response but then again at least I got my voice added to the chorus. The big Lobby group probably drown me out…
    Viva Le Revolution!

  31. ????
    Anyone have a link to an US government explanation of WHY they want to do this? Are they offering a substitute plain that gives access while protecting copyrights in this new age of digital re-distribution mayhem?

    It’s been my experience that NO problems in this world are as simple and straight forward as this article would make it seem.
    I would suggest that anytime you read an internet story that makes you want to grab your torch or pitchfork and then storm the castle gates … it’s usually a good idea to take a deep breath and do a little more reading first.

    I’m not saying there IS a valid explanation for this … but this article seems pretty inflammatory.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go sharpen my pitchfork.

  32. What do President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have in common on this topic? They both personally made a bunch of money (and won Grammy’s!) for audio versions of their books. In the U.S. the Library of Congress has a service for the blind that releases (on special format audiotapes) audiotapes of recent books. Under current law, the assumption is that LoC can record any book it thinks its blind clients might like unless the publisher blocks them. In the past, LoC was required to get permission in writing from the publisher before recording a book for a blind client. Often that meant delays of 1-2 years while publishers stalled on allowing LoC to make a recording. When Congress was debating whether to change the law in order to keep publishers from blocking LoC from recording new books in a timely manner, an example was made of a particular book where the publisher was stalling on allowing LoC to make a recording (in order to maximize profits from a publisher-released Books on Tape). The example: It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    LoC Special Services for the Blind has fewer than 1 million clients, and likely has very little impact on Books on Tape profits for publishers and authors like Hillary Clinton. But that “very little” imact was enough for Clinton to hold up LoC. I guess it takes every dime and nickel for her to make her million$.

  33. This reminds me of another issue regarding IP– just recently a shipment of 500 kilos of HIV meds ordered by international aid organizations was seized by the Netherlands. The reason? They manufactured by Indian firms and violated pharmaceutical company patent-holder’s “rights”. What about the rights of people who might die without meds? Too bad, it seems.

    It doesn’t help society to support IP regime of this nature. Intellectual Property holders play a deadly game and should be held responsible for the truly criminal consequences of their profit-seeking acts.

  34. Wait, what? I thought that things like audiobooks (especially audiobooks, I see them everywhere) braille, and large-print editions were already widely available. And as long as the author is paid, I’m not seeing how this is a copyright issue at all. Why would this operate any differently from any other edition of a book?

    Can someone explain why there needs to be a special treaty for this?

  35. “The opposition from the United States and other high income countries is due to intense lobbying from a large group of publishers that oppose a “paradigm shift,” where treaties would protect consumer interests, rather than expand rights for copyright owners. ”

    Whose balls are we after again?

  36. That’s an interesting spin on how this would undermine artist’s rights.

    Copyright should protect the owner of the copyright. THEY CREATED THE WORK. (Or inherited the rights from the person/s who created the work.)

    There is a rampant sense of entitlement these days, where people feel they deserve access to an artist’s work, even without the artist’s permission. And this is a perfect example of that. You’ve pitted the most sympathetic group against those big bad… uh, people who made stuff and want to maintain control over the stuff they created.

    I’m ALL for more audiobooks being produced and more large print books, and other things that will help handicapped people read what they want to — but not at the expense of the writers/artists who created it.

    Example, Kindle’s ability to block text to speech by author request. Some authors are utilizing this feature, like Stephen King and Maya Angelou. I don’t LIKE that they disabled their text to speech, but they have. It’s their work, it’s their decision to make. If they feel it cuts into the sales of audiobooks or just dislike the way the voice on Kindle sounds and want to select actors/speechmakers of their choosing — it’s their work and they should have a right to control how the work is presented.

  37. @Brooklyn,

    If you read the text of the treaty, it’s not really an entitlement issue. It would grant the right for media transliteration without express consent, true. But not to just anyone – it would only be granted to people who already own rights to distribute the work, and only for works for which there is not an independently available disability-friendly version in that country. In addition, any commercial use would expressly be allowed only if normal remuneration of the rights holder is made.

    So, Joe Blow doesn’t get to record an audio book of a work that’s already out in audio and give it away to whomever he chooses. Even if there is no audio version, he can only share his recording of it with disabled persons. There is to be a database of works and their states of accessibility. So on and so forth. It’s really a quite narrow and, IMO, well thought out provision.

  38. @Laroquod “First they came for…” If you don’t stand up for the rights of your brothers and sisters, who will stand up for yours?

    The problem with referencing that particular aphorism, is that they’ve already come for me. They’ve already come for us all.

  39. @ 46 Brooklyn:

    There is no way an author should have control over how their work is presented. Accessed, maybe, but saying you can’t use text to speech is like saying you shouldn’t read it out loud. It is not at all obvious to me why that would be their call.

  40. This is infuriating; the nation I live in continues to embarrass me. Smarten up Canada, we don’t have to be Yankee-Lite.

  41. The right to make copies of works in assistive formats (Braille, large type, audio) without permission or compensation is already a feature in US copyright law and has been for the entire modern life of publishing. The US publishers are pressuring the US trade rep to keep blind people in poor countries from getting this privilege, too.

  42. Nothing says compassion like cryptically characterizing disabled people as charismatic megafauna.

  43. @Brooklyn:
    You appear to misunderstand the basic nature of copyright. It is not a natural and all-inclusive right of the creator – and my understanding is that the groups in question are generally *buyers* of IP rights rather than actual *creators* – but rather a limited monopoly over the specific expression of an idea, granted by the state at sufferance. The creator does not hold the ‘natural’ right: the public domain does. It is the author’s monopoly which is the exemption.

  44. @Brooklyn,

    Nowadays, the people who control the distribution of art on a larger scale, have nothing to do with its creation.

    @Kthx for the info, I was thinking about Luther and all that. Silly me. :P

    Epic win! It’s nice to see a problem that started this morning, resolved in the end of the day.

  45. ” #56 posted by failix, May 29, 2009 2:26 PM

    Nowadays, the people who control the distribution of art on a larger scale, have nothing to do with its creation.”

    That is a problem with contract law, not copyright. From the moment something is created (save when the creator is working while under contracts that claim ownership of their work) the work is copyrighted to the creator. That’s as it should be.

  46. @Cory Thanks fpr that, looks like I might have been interpreting this whole thing the wrong way.

  47. I’ve just sent the following to a list I hang out on with the GDC (Graphic Designers of Canada). I forwarded the above article, and got some interesting responses back, about the plea for support using “Chicken Little” tactics, without solid reasoning and logic behind the arguments. I thought about just letting it go (Designers can be a curmudgeonly lot, sometimes, and there are some response tones that can be predicted, if you’ve read the same people’s responses for enough posts), but something bothered me about ignoring it, so here’s my post on the GDC list:

    I’ve got to admit that the details of the WIPO conference, as well as the actual wording of the proposed legislation, is not known to me. I haven’t gone through each of the documents involved, or tried to find and read the responses of the yeahs and nays, or had much discussion with people on the perspectives, probable outcomes, or used reductio ad absurdem, etc., to draw conclusions about what might happen should the outcome be what the article I posted was trying to warn about, happen.

    I outsourced that job, perhaps foolishly, to individuals whose opinions, reasoning and awareness of the potential outcomes of this kind of legislation are superior in depth and breadth than mine, yet whose skills, intelligence and above all, heart, are aligned to the direction that I want to go in.

    In the extremely weird world we now live in, it seems like the less you know about the implications of rapidly advancing technology on the economy, the culture, and maybe even our evolution (not to mention the ecology), the higher you rise in the status quo, and the more capability you have of really screwing things up royally… for EVERYONE one the planet.

    I was skeptical of loads of earlier positions put forward by some of these people talking about the challenges ahead: Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, Prof. Michael Geist, Jesse Brown; but after following their writings on the topic and it’s many threads for a few months, I find myself unable to deny the logic I see in their predictions for what the future of our world will be like, regarding creativity, ownership, copying, and making strange, weird blends of things that others have lovingly placed out there in the world. You’ll be able to print dishes in a couple of years. Yes, you heard me: dishes! Cups, bowls, sculptures. 3-D printing is coming. And the world will take it on, just like it did with computers printing pages onto a colour photocopier. Did you guys see that happening in 1992? I did, as soon as I saw what could be done with Pagemaker or Quark or Illustrator or Freehand, and as soon as I had asked the Canon guy, “how does it scan the colour original?”

    So, do we want to have the possibilities that will exist in 5, 10 years’ time hampered, like what happened when Microsoft spent untold millions convincing Finance types who knew nothing about computing, or what usability was, to go for Windows, because, after all, DOS was so great! AND it was from Microsoft, too! So what if we’re not comparing apples with Apples here (snarf), you’re our PALS!!!

    Do you really want the next part of our society and economy hamstrung by decisions made by people who don’t GET what the importance of their decisions would be? Or worse, DO get it, but choose the way they do because they have a vested interest in keeping things the same, instead of seeing the huge potentials for things to be WAY BETTER, if only they’d open their minds? General Motors, anyone? I want to live in a world without having to deal with the laws that some a-hole control-freak Donald Trump-clone wrote, telling me that I can’t do something with something I have paid for, because while I purchased the right to use whatever it was I bought in the bathtub, the license I was sold doesn’t cover using it in my friend’s swimming pool, and they’ve put a GPS and a radio transmitter on “it” so they can tell if I DO go to my friend’s pool with it, so they can call the Rights Police to slam down on my ass, for breaking rules which make no sense in the real world at all. Except the people who lobbied for them were working from a place of greed and laziness and entitlement when they pushed for what they wanted.

    I don’t want that kind of world. I never did, and I’m pretty happy when I find people working hard to try and change things to make it better than that. And the tools have never before been available for them, or me, to do really do it well.


  48. I wonder if some who support this were to accidentally lose their eyesight, perhaps they might reconsider their priorities?

  49. I have posted my responses to the US Copyright Office’s inquiry about this at Here is a snippet:

    …the Treaty being proposed for the World Intellectual Property Organization, if unaccompanied by measures promoting a shift in emphasis towards Mainstream Accessibility, can not be considered a progressive effort. While it is understandable that groups represented by the World Blind Union are supporting this measure, it would have the unfortunate effect of increasing the reliance of people with disabilities upon government and non-profit agencies, without any guarantee of increased access.

  50. I asked the NZ Govt dept involved and they say that they didn’t oppose it. The treaty was introduced at that session and they couldn’t support or oppose the treaty without an opportunity to assess it.

    Cory, do you have a reference for the statement above that the NZ Govt opposed the treaty?

  51. I realise this is not now a current issue, but having read the proposed treaty it concerns me greatly.

    In the preamble and a few other places the treaty refers to “blind, visually impaired, and other reading disabled persons” but in virtually all the places that are legally relevant it only talks about those who are visually impaired. The sighted print disabled such as those who have a physical disability which prevents them holding a book or turning the pages, and those with perceptual disabilities such as dyslexia, are basically ignored through all the parts of the draft treaty which matter.

    As a sighted print disabled person (I can’t hold a book because of physical disability) and one who has 4 severely dyslexic family members this worries me a lot. I fully support everything this treaty talks about but it should NOT be limited to those whose print disability is caused by lack of sight!

  52. Hello,

    I am actually interning currently at the OHCHR for the committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, and have been assisting to draft a copy of the reporting guidelines for ratifying nations. I would be very interested in seeing if there is a chance to include a statement about this in the document and will mention it to the secretariat. If anyone has further suggestions i can be reached here.


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