US stonewalling treaty that would help disabled people access copyrighted works

The World Intellectual Property Organization has been working on a treaty to protect the rights of disabled people with regard to copyright since 1985. Most of the world's rich countries and developing nations support this work. However, two key entities are stonewalling and holding up the treaty: the European Commission (despite strong support from the European Parliament); and the USA, whose trade negotiators are listening to big business lobby groups like the Association of American Publishers, who oppose any treaty that creates rights for information users instead of corporations.

The idea of the treaty is to harmonize the rights of disabled people in different countries. For example, in the USA, it's legal to make assistive editions of books -- audiobooks, ebooks, Braille and large type books -- without permission from the copyright holder. The same right exists in Canada. But Canadian groups like the Canadian National Institute for the Blind can't just import those assistive editions and offer them to their members -- they have to incur the substantial expense all over again. Some countries include people who have other disabilities (such as the inability to turn pages due to paralysis or arm injuries or other disabilities) in their disabled access laws. Some don't. Some don't have any such laws at all. It's a mess, and the cash-strapped, volunteer-run organizations that serve some of the most vulnerable people on Earth are unable to cooperate across borders to assist one another.

The USA's stonewalling has put the treaty into a kind of limbo. Most of us, if we live long enough, will be visually disabled to some extent. That means that most of us would someday benefit from a treaty that provides access to disabled people. And that means that we are all being held hostage by the US Trade Representative's sucking up to a few special interest lobbies.

What's up with the White House? To understand the position of the United States, listen to last week's interview with Alan Adler of the Association of American Publishers (here). What Adler is saying is that his membership opposes a treaty, not because of what the treaty would do in the context of persons with disabilities, but because it would set a precedent that a copyright treaty could focus on the rights of users rather than copyright owners, and that precedent can spread to other areas, where publishers have a real economic interest, such as the education and library markets. This is basically the Obama position for the past three years -- to push disabilities groups to accept some lesser non-binding recommendation, rather than a treaty.

Right now the United States delegate will only say that the issue is being reviewed within the government. The three major decision makers on this issue are Maria Pallante of the United States Copyright Office, Ambassador Ron Kirk who serves as head of USTR in the White House, and David Kappos at USPTO. Most people believe USTR has been a problem, and we are told that Pallante (who earlier supported PIPA/SOPA) has yet to support a treaty. David Kappos is the lead agency on this, and if he wanted a treaty, we would have an agreement at WIPO by Wednesday to recommend a diplomatic conference for to take place 2013.

In the United States Congress, there have been no hearings and little interest in the issue. Senator Harkin, who Chairs the Senate HELP Committee and has jurisdiction over disabilities issue wrote a strong letter in support of the treaty approach: http://keionline.org/node/1397. Senator Leahy chairs the Judiciary committee, which has jurisdiction over copyright law. Like Pallante, he supported PIPA/SOPA. When we meet with Senator Leahy's office, we were told he was opposed to a treaty -- because it would require the United States to amend its law, to permit the export of accessible copies of copyright works to blind people in other countries -- something now illegal under US law.

US position at WIPO on "the Nature of the Instrument" for copyright exceptions for disabilities (Thanks, Jamie!)