An international copyright treaty, adopted by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Marrakesh on June 27, will dramatically increase access to reading materials for the 300 million visually impaired people around the world. This is a historic moment for the blind. The treaty was adopted 32 years after WIPO and UNESCO first investigated the need for a solution to end the “book famine”—the fact that blind people have access to only one to five percent of published works.
The treaty also makes copyright history. For the first time, an international agreement mandates the protection of user rights in copyright. One of the most important achievements include a provision that enables direct delivery of accessible formats to individuals across borders. The treaty also explicitly allows the circumvention of digital locks by those delivering reading materials.
To be clear, the treaty is not perfect. The fact that audio-visual works are not included is probably the biggest omission. Powerful forces fought against this project throughout the process. In fact, up until six months ago the United States government opposed the very idea of a treaty of this nature. The Motion Picture Association of America flexed its muscles in the months leading up to the conference. As the Washington Post reported, the MPAA pressed Washington officials for changes in the text, warning about loosening copyright protections.
Why did the “miracle in Marrakesh” happen? Advocates were fighting for a strong moral cause: A world in which the visually impaired have minimal access to published works is unacceptable, especially when technology makes it easily possible. Blind and non-blind civil society groups have worked tirelessly for years to get this done, starting with the Declaration on the Future of WIPO in 2004. This Declaration was the beginning of a process that transformed WIPO from a closed into a transparent and much more legitimate institution, a rare exception in the world of intellectual property policy-making.
In July 2008, Knowledge Ecology International worked with the World Blind Union (both supported in this campaign by the Open Society Foundations) to host a meeting to draft the first version of the Marrakesh Treaty. Armed with a treaty text, the blind community presented their ask to WIPO and, finally, were heard. None of this would have happened without the leadership of governments from the Global South: Brazil, Egypt, Ecuador, Chile, India, Algeria, Nigeria, and many others stood with the blind. They took the time to understand their concerns, tabled the WBU proposal, resisted pressure, and as a result negotiated a strong treaty.
The job is not done. The way treaties are implemented is as important as how they are negotiated. So attention will need to focus on ratification and implementation.
But for now, it’s time to celebrate. Hopefully, this is the beginning of an era in which international copyright law will again accord the public interest its legitimate place, advancing human rights, personal development, and the progress of open societies.