The World Blind Union, Amazon and the Author’s Guild — more from the eIFL conference

One of the most passionate and compelling speakers at the eIFL 2nd IP conference in Turkey last month was Chris Friend, who is the strategic priority leader for the World Blind Union’s Right to Read initiative and also works with Sight Saver’s International training blind leaders in Africa.  A couple of private conversations with Chris and his wife Judy gave me a much-needed education on the copyright issues facing vision-impaired people and the wide array of technological solutions that could be available if the IP problems were solved.  Also, our hotel room was next to that of Chris and Judy, so my wife and I were often lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sound of his text-reader.  At the conference, Chris presented about the World Blind Union’s proposed treaty before the world Intellectual Property Organization “for blind, visually impaired and other reading disabled persons.”

The treaty, which is linked in a variety of formats from this page by Knowledge Ecology International, makes for interesting reading.  It represents a carefully constructed effort to craft an exception to international copyright law that would make it easier for visually impaired people to find books in accessible formats.  Of course, WIPO has not been very interested, until recently, in harmonizing exceptions and limitations to copyright law, only protection.  But there are signs that that is changing, and the WBU proposed treaty would be a great place for WIPO to start.

The treaty includes five provisions that I want to highlight.

First, it would permit users to reproduce works into accessible formats without authorization and to distribute those formats on a non-profit basis exclusively to visually impaired persons (article 4a).  Second, it would permit distribute on a for-profit basis if the work is not reasonably available in an accessible format (article 4c).  Third, it provides a useful definition of what “reasonably available” means, pegged to the price of the non-accessible version of a work and distinguishing between what is reasonable in the developed world and what is reasonable in the developing world (article 4d).  Next, the proposed treaty includes a provision to permit circumvention of technological protection measures when those measures would prevent the creation of accessible formats (article 6).  Finally, the treaty would explicitly state that contractual provisions that are contrary to the treaty would be voided (article 7).  These last two provisions are extremely important as any discussion of harmonizing limitations and exceptions gets started, and we should be grateful to the WBU for stating them so clearly and in such a compelling context.

All this took on added urgency for me this week as another group that represents visually impaired people, the National Federation for the Blind, held a protest outside the headquarters of the Author’s Guild.  The protest, about which there are photos and a story here, was because of the pressure brought to bear on Amazon to disable the text-to-voice features on its Kindle 2 e-book device.  As I have written earlier, the legal claim made by the Author’s Guild that Kindle was infringing their copyrights was insupportable, but nevertheless, Amazon choose to cave in rather than risk a court battle, even one it could clearly win.  I find myself wondering why, if the Kindle feature is a copyright infringement, the Author’s Guild is not also opposing the text-reading software that Chris Friend was using in Istanbul; could it be something as obvious as avoiding really bad PR?  Anyway, the National Federation for the Blind is now taking the Author’s Guild to task for opposing a technology that, whatever other uses it might have, would be a great boon to the visually impaired.  Kindle 2 is not an ideal technology for blind people — one must still see well enough to turn pages in order to use it — but the text-to-speech function, combined with Amazon’s wide array of available e-books, would surely assist a great many people experience literature that would otherwise be unavailable to them.  Copyright law should not, and as of now does not, when understood properly, stand in the way of this benefit.  Neverthless, the flap over Kindle 2 helps make the point that exceptions for the blind and visually impaired must be built in to copyright law at the highest level in order to prevent self-serving misinterpretations from further burdening those who want to exercise their “right to read.”