I’m one of the lucky ones. My hunger for books is easily satiated. I can see, I can read, I can go into any bookstore and buy whatever my heart desires. My life is saturated with things to read. For pleasure. For learning. For working. For my health. For everyday living.
I would venture a guess that I’m not alone in taking this for granted. At least I did. Until now.
It’s a sad fact that access to books — and thus, basic information, knowledge and pleasure — is effectively denied to most of the world’s visually impaired. That’s close to 300 million people, most of whom live in developing countries.
That’s because antiquated trade barriers bar the sharing of books in accessible formats across borders. Currently only 5% of all published books in developed countries, and less than 1% in developing countries, are ever produced in the accessible formats.
It’s called the “book famine.”
The consequences of this famine are very real: Without access to information, visually impaired people are denied access to education, employment and full participation in society.
These barriers are easily removed. According to the National Federation of the Blind in the US:
“The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information that exist. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance.”
A new and historic international treaty will make things right by giving the visually disabled greater access to braille, large print and talking books.
That’s 300 million readers. And that’s a lot of books.
The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled was ratified by the UN World Intellectual Property Organization on June 28, 2013.
In a nutshell, the treaty removes international copyright restrictions for the visually disabled. And according to the World Blind Union, the treaty will:
- Allow specialist organizations to make accessible copies of books in all signatory countries
- Make it legal to send accessible books across national borders
- Still respect copyright law: it is not an attack on publishers
- Make more books available for blind people
Sharing accessible books across borders is a common-sense solution to a big problem. This also helps organizations for the blind share resources: no longer do they have to do translations of the same book. They can share from nation-to-nation.
More than ten years in the making, the “Miracle at Marrakesh” sets a precedent: It is the first intellectual property treaty that will allow governments to act in the public interest of their citizens, not in the commercial interest of rights holders. As such, it received strong opposition from the “rights holders”, such as the motion picture industry, software makers and publishers (even Disney!).
Fifty-one nations signed on to the treaty (twenty are needed to actually ratify the agreement). Two major players — Canada and the US — are noticeably absent. Look below to see if your nation is represented:
51 Signatories to the Marrakesh Treaty:
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Central African Republic
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Republic of Moldova
Sao Tome and Principe
I am bitterly disappointed to see my home country missing from this list.
But I am not surprised (sadly) to see opposition from so many powerful business interests. Surely the creative people who make up the book, movie, music and technology industries could put their hearts and minds together to help the world’s blind.
Thankfully, it seems that in this case, the international community — the blind and the sighted, libraries and governments, human rights organizations and open access advocates — triumphed over pressures from commercial interests.
I was interested to hear singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder, a vocal advocate of the treaty, speak about the longer term implications of the agreement. He says it will not only help the visually disabled — but sets a precedent for future international agreements that don’t pit corporate interests against human rights:
“Today my heart is at peace. And my faith in humanity has been renewed…this sends a message to all world leaders that it is possible to do business, and do good at the same time.”
It’s heartening to see that books have been a unifying force for good in the world.
And for me personally, I won’t take my access to books for granted again. Nor the rights of others to do the same.
Marrakesh Treaty — World International Property Organization
World Blind Union, which represents the 285 million blind and partially sighted persons in 190 member countries
KEI (Knowledge Ecology International)
Writers open letter in support of WIPO treaty