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Making the Right to Read a Reality: An Interview with Chris Friend

Chris Friend is Chair of the World Blind Union’s Right to Read Campaign. Becky Hogge spoke to him about the campaign to secure a Treaty for the Visually Impaired at the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization, and what such a treaty could deliver for the hundreds of millions of visually impaired people across the world.

The World Blind Union (WBU) represents the estimated 285 million people worldwide who are blind or partially–sighted. Why is a campaign at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for a Treaty for the Visually Impaired so important to this community?

Blind and partially–sighted people want to read for all the same reasons as others, but to do so we need books in accessible formats such as Braille, large print, and audio. Blind people’s charities are usually left to make such accessible format books at their own expense, as publishers themselves usually do not make and sell books in these formats. Ninety-five percent of books are not published accessibly in developed countries, rising to 99 percent in developing countries.

To produce these accessible versions, our organizations have to make copies of the books. That brings copyright law into play, and therefore WIPO, which makes international law on copyright.

Our campaign seeks a treaty at WIPO to overcome existing copyright law barriers which prevent blind people’s organizations from making more accessible books available to blind people.

Could you explain how copyright law needs to change in order to permit greater access to reading materials for the visually impaired? What specific problems does the Treaty for the Visually Impaired seek to address?

The sharing of the few books in accessible formats that blind charities can produce with neighboring countries, or countries with the same language, is not permitted under current copyright law. Our accessible format books can only be distributed to beneficiary persons within the country where they have been produced.

The treaty we seek (nicknamed “TVI”—Treaty for the Visually Impaired) would allow visually impaired and other print disabled people to share their collections of accessible books cross-border and with same-language groups around the world. That would save visually impaired organizations unnecessarily re–engineering the same book more than once. The second Harry Potter book, for example, had to be re–engineered at approximately $5k per version, in five English–language Braille versions and eight Daisy audio versions around the world. The TVI would have saved visually impaired organizations $55k, to put towards mastering a further eleven new accessible titles.

Could you give us an idea of some of the benefits you can imagine in a future where the Treaty for the Visually Impaired has been implemented?

Currently many national blind organizations, especially in the developing and least–developed countries, do not have any library collections of accessible books for their members because of the large cost of production. The TVI will allow same–language groups and neighboring countries to share their collections, thus dramatically reducing the unit cost of books. This will certainly encourage them to begin to build up libraries benefiting the education and social development of their members. Hundreds of thousands more books will be distributed to blind and other print disabled people.

WIPO’s Treaty for the Visually Impaired is different to other binding treaties negotiated at WIPO, which are usually established to protect the rights of creators and publishers. How has this affected the campaign’s progress?

WIPO has a stated remit to protect the rights of authors, creators and publishers on the one hand, but also the rights of the wider public interest on the other. However the visually impaired treaty initiative is the first attempt to put a legislative framework in place to fulfill the second part of that remit, the rights of the public interest—in this case the rights of visually impaired and other print disabled people– to be protected through exceptions and limitations.

Right from the start, publisher and other rights holder organizations opposed the need for a treaty, stating that market forces could provide a full solution. Ironically, WBU called for a WIPO treaty specifically because the market had so clearly failed to deliver any meaningful solution, in spite of a decade of dialogue between the blind and the publishers. It is now four years since our TVI proposal was first floated at WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights. NGOs are not entitled to table agenda items, but in May 2009 the governments of Brazil, Ecuador, and Paraguay adopted and tabled a draft text of our treaty. That began the long process which hopefully will soon come to a successful conclusion and enable accessible format books to be readily available on the same day and at the same price as the book is available in the high street.

You have observed TVI–related negotiations at WIPO since they began four years ago. What has been the most striking feature, for you, of this experience?

The evolution of our concern from something generating minimal discussion and even less agreement at WIPO, to a matter where all negotiating parties agree that a new law is needed and are working not just at WIPO but between WIPO sessions to achieve that.

In December, the WIPO General Assembly will meet in Extraordinary Session to discuss the treaty. What is at stake in this meeting?

Member States at WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) have been undertaking line–by–line examination of the treaty text for the past three meetings, since June 2011. They anticipate finishing this examination in late November (SCCR 26) and will then submit a recommendation to the WIPO General Assembly in December to organize a diplomatic conference for June 2013. A Diplomatic Conference is the legislative vehicle by which a treaty is formally agreed and presented to Member States to sign and subsequently ratify.

What outcome of December’s meeting would, for the WBU, constitute a success?

Agreement to call the Diplomatic Conference in June 2013 to approve a Treaty, on the basis of a clear and workable treaty text which will allow us to put many more accessible books into the hands of blind people.

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