World Intellectual Property Organization Inches Toward Agreement on Reading Rights for People with Visual Impairments

by Melanie Brunson

Since the ACB conference and convention in July, delegates to the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) have held two more meetings. At both meetings, access to books for people with print-reading disabilities was a priority agenda item.  The most recent meeting, which took place Oct. 17-19, focused exclusively on issues surrounding this item.
The goal of this committee is to develop a text that can be used as the basis for an international treaty that will provide changes to copyright law. We need this treaty to provide changes to copyright law, enabling producers of books in accessible formats located in one country to share them with readers in other countries who have visual impairments. The hope is that by removing copyright barriers to transfer of alternate format books across borders, the shortage of reading material faced by people who are blind worldwide can be eased, if not eliminated.
If consensus can be reached on the text of an agreement during the upcoming meeting in November, there is a chance that a diplomatic conference could be held on the issue in 2013.  All of this hinges upon the ability of WIPO's member states to agree on the details of the limitations and exceptions that are needed to ensure that the instrument adequately addresses the problem.  For those of us who attend the WIPO meetings as representatives of the World Blind Union, watching the process of working out those details is at times frustrating.  It sometimes feels like for every item on which consensus appears to have been reached, another issue gets raised to take its place.  Even so, we are heartened to note that support for meaningful measures to address the shortage of books in accessible formats is growing.  As a consequence, I can report that, slow though it may be, progress is being made toward reaching our goal. 
As we prepare for the next round of WIPO meetings, a working group of delegates from Brazil, India, the European Union, Nigeria, and the United States is meeting to try and work out agreement on additional outstanding issues prior to the next formal WIPO copyright meeting.  They hope this informal work will help to move the process along at a faster pace when the entire committee gets together.  The World Blind Union has also submitted comments for consideration by the working group.  In addition, here at home, we have kept in close contact with the U.S. delegation and have had several very good discussions with them about all aspects of the proposal under discussion.
We are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of bringing this process to a satisfactory conclusion some time next year.  We will keep you posted here as the proceedings conclude and we have details of a text to report.  It will be exciting to write about a process with such momentous implications for people with print-reading disabilities worldwide.  Stay tuned!