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: 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!)


  1. This is absurd. I don’t understand how Mr. Adler can go on record saying that despite the benefit that would be gained by perceptually handicapped people, he’s unwilling to allow the treaty to go forward because it would set a precedent! How does he sleep?

    As for Senator Lahey, he opposes the treaty because it would require amending the US domestic law. I’m sorry Senator, but enacting, repealing and modifying laws IS YOUR ONLY REASON FOR EXISTING! The statement can easily be re-phrased to say: “Senator Lahey opposes the treaty becuase it would force him to do his job”.

    This is truly pathetic. It’s stories like this that shake one’s confidence in humanity to the core. Shame!

    1. Admitting that these shameless proponents of the ‘blind agenda’ have rights would be a dark step down the slippery slope of admitting that consumers in general might have rights… Somebody has to take a stand.

      Next thing you know, they’ll be demanding a DMCA exemption so that they can use their filthy, criminal, circumvention tools on our precious premium content under the guise of needing a screen reader…

      1. The worst of all this (in my humble opinion) is that the U.S. exports its policy internationally. Here in Canada, the Federal Government just passed a copyright law heavily influenced by the DMCA and even more heavily influenced by the USTR’s agenda on IP.

        This is unacceptable to me as a Canadian. The U.S. needs to end this culture of exporting its laws and values to places where they’re not wanted or just don’t fit. Canada is not the 51st State!

        1.  i assure you, no one in america thinks of canada as the 51st state…more like puerto rico, kinda part of america but not with any voting rights,or protection under the constitution, or representation or choice in your law.

          1.  I tend to think of it more as, “That place where I’m going to seek asylum if Romney manages to steal the election.”

  2. Whats strange is that some of the groups now supporting a treaty were responsible for the 1996 Chafee amendment that cut off exports of accessible materials. If this issue was on their radar in 1985, why didn’t they include it in the amendment?

    Here is a snip from the 1997 National Federation of the Blind Presidential Report:

    “Last summer, only a few weeks after the close of our 1996 National Convention, Congress took decisive action to amend the Copyright Act. The new provisions relating to blindness, which became effective in September, were drafted jointly by the National Federation of the Blind and the Association of American Publishers. At our request Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island sponsored the legislation.

    The new law authorizes nonprofit organizations or government agencies to reproduce books and other material in special formats that can be used by the blind. No permission is required from the copyright holder. Braille, voice recording, or electronic formats may be used. The role of the National Federation of the Blind in negotiating the agreement with the Association of American Publishers and in taking the result to Congress will make a lasting positive difference in the lives of the blind of our nation, and similar legislation has been adopted in Canada and is currently being considered in Italy and elsewhere.”

    Sounds like they left their international colleagues to fend for themselves.

  3. Truth is, copyright law has never been a significant contributor to the so-called ‘book famine’ for the blind, nor will a treaty have a significant impact on ending it. The debate over a treaty has been marred by a shortage of critical thinking and an excess of empty posturing.

    The real barrier has always been cost. Publishing in accessible formats has simply been too expensive to allow the majority of books to be made accessible. But now, finally, digital publishing is ready to deliver the accessibility promise of ‘same book, same time, same cost’, which is why the DAISY Consortium has moved so strongly to merge with the EPUB standard. This kind of integration is what should be promoted and funded by publishers and disability advocates.

    The irony is that pushing through a treaty will only make print-disabled people more dependent on government and charity largess just when the opportunity is ripe for truly inclusive digital publishing to take hold. Also, justifying a treaty on the basis of the perceived needs of ‘developing’ countries smacks of colonialism. If anything, lets help those countries build up their own publishing businesses instead of relying on ‘foreign imports’.

    The reality is that a treaty would help enforce a form of ‘digital apartheid’, where the distinction between mainstream and ‘accessible’ publishing, and segregation between mainstream and disabled readers, would be encoded in international
    law. Now that would be shameful.

  4. If its not in big business interests, the United States will not support it. It is the driving force behind all policy choices, and considering the apathy of the public in general, this will not change any time soon.

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