Progress on Ratification of Treaty for Blind and Vision Impaired

For the estimated 357,000 Australians who are blind or have low vision, settling in to read the latest bestseller is not as easy as grabbing a copy from the local bookshop or downloading it onto an e-reader.  With only 3-5% of printed content made available in accessible formats; the ability to convert print into braille, large print or DAISY formats is essential to ensure the blind and vision impaired are not locked out of culture and knowledge.

This need has been recognised at the international level, with the conclusion of the Marrakesh Treaty. This World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) Treaty requires countries to allow individuals and organisations to convert works into accessible formats without infringing copyright, and to be able to exchange these versions across borders – reducing needless duplication and enhancing the resources of (often stretched) organisations.

Australia signed the treaty last year, and the slow journey to ratification continues.  The latest step was the consideration of the Treaty by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT).  This Parliamentary Committee will make a recommendation on whether Australia should ratify the treaty. 

Speaking for the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD, who have portfolio responsibility for the implementation of the Treaty), Andrew Walter, Assistant Secretary AGD, firmly recommended ratification of the Treaty.  To date 9 countries have ratified and there needs to be 20 ratifications ‘to get it over the line’. As Mr Walter noted, it would be great for a developed country to take the lead, as the Treaty’s biggest impact will be in developing countries. The AGD has outlined proposed amendments to the Act to effectively implement the Treaty, but it urging ratification as soon as possible.

Concerns about the ‘commercial availability’ reservation were raised by a number of disability groups. This reservation would be in line with the current provisions which state that an accessible format copy may only be made if there isn’t one commercially available.  While this may seem non-controversial on its face, the current implementation of this provision leads to delays in works being made available, extra administrative costs and most egregiously shuts some out from accessible copies all together.  This is due to a drafting issue where if there is a commercially available work in a specified format (such as audio or large print) then no other version may be made, even if the available subset of the format is of no use to the individual.  For example a synthetic text to speech audio version precludes a DAISY audio version being produced, even though many blind people can only access DAISY version audio.

In addressing these concerns, Mr Walter noted AGD recommended taking an ‘all solutions approach’ which encouraged commercial approaches while ensuring that there were avenues for conversion when those were not adequate (as is currently the case for 95% of print material).  The ideal situation he said, would be is accessible format copies were released at the same time as the standard release, something that should be possible as time moves on.

One issue with that is often overlooked as well is the backlog of out of print/out of commerce works that are not available in accessible format, ranging from novels to government reports. Luckily both the existing and proposed future amendments would encompass this. 

Mr Kelvin Thomson MP raised the concerns of Authors’ Groups who argued that the Marrakesh Treaty allowed conversion ‘without recourse to the author’. Mr Walter explained that this would not change substantially from the current situation.  As a matter of equity this is an essential part of making accessible copies available, the blind and vision impaired should not have to face the hurdle of sourcing individual permissions, not should authors be able to discriminate against them on the basis of their disability.  At the same time there are safeguards to ensure that this ability to make accessible works is only for the benefit of those who have a disability that requires it.

Ms Melissa Parke MP asked about people being unable to convert works if they were protected by Technological Protection Measures (TPMs).  Mr Walter explained that organisations acting under the statutory licence have an exception to bypass TPMs, but not people working under s200AB (individuals and organisations such as university libraries). Mr Walter said the government was ‘actively considering’ the TPM exceptions – a review of which is meant to take place every four years under the terms of the Australian-US free trade agreement.  This is essential for Australia to fully comply with the Treaty – Article 7 is clear that countries must

“ensure that when they provide adequate legal protection and effective legal remedies against the circumvention of effective technological measures, this legal protection does not prevent beneficiary persons from enjoying the limitations and exceptions provided for in this Treaty”

Maryanne Diamond AO was singled out for recognition, as the ‘guiding spirit behind the negotiations’.  Maryanne, past President of the World Blind Union and currently with Vision Australia, has devoted countless time and effort to getting this Treaty concluded and ratified.  You can hear her speak very personally about its significance to her, and others with a vision impairment in this video from the Australian Digital Alliance conference earlier in the year.

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