Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Balancing Act for the Blind and Visually Impaired

On Monday June 17, a diplomatic conference will be held to negotiate a treaty/international instrument that would allow accessible-format works to be exported from country to country.  Intended to address the problem that currently only 5% of copyright works are currently available in accessible format.  Copyright law in many countries currently prohibits the export of copyright works, including accessible-format works.   This creates a situation where works must be separately converted to accessible formats in each country, or where separate permissions must be requested for each country to create or export the works, inhibiting the flow of accessible-format works around the world.

Recently, I noted that the negotiations have entered troubled waters.  Media conglomerates, copyright lobby groups, the Obama administration, and the European Commission have sought to weaken or derail the treaty

The Canadian government continues to stress "balance" in copyright as a way of navigating this issue.  It claims that the current Canadian copyright law, which does contains export measures for the visually impaired, is "balanced".  Indeed, Canada was the first country in the world to put in place such provisions, including provisions that allow the circumvention of TPMs by the perceptually impaired or those working on their behalf.  However, the idea that copyright is "balanced" in addressing the interests of the visually impaired is contentious, as the question of balance always is.  Canada’s act regarding the export of accessible works  applies only to works by Canadian authors, does not apply to large print books or cinematographic works, does not apply if the work is reasonably available in the destination country, and sets out various other restrictions. 

The idea that copyright is currently "balanced" in addressing the interests of the visually impaired is often questioned.  Only 5% of works are accessible to the visually impaired...this is is not balance.  Canada should not take any action that will allow a different or better balance to be achieved in the future by enshrining restrictive or highly bureaucratic measures in an international treaty.

Two groups are especially affected by visual impairments: children and the elderly. This is an issue that affects us all, when we're old and when we're young.  It also affects disproportionately those living in developing countries.  I want to be able to read when I'm old.  I want my friends in developing countries to be able to too.  I want Canadian negotiators to stand up and make sure that happens.

As I said in a January 2011 op-ed in The Hill Times, Canada could do more. It could enable less restrictive laws around the world, ensuring that the perceptually impaired can circumvent TPMs in order to be able to access works.  This is an opportunity for Canada to show leadership and vision, and to emphatically insist on the fullest and most meaningful access for the visually impaired,  unimpeded by TPMs or by other restrictive measures. Canada's position should be based on preserving this policy flexibility for a future of fuller access for everyone.

[corrected June 14 2013][revised June 16 2013]

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