WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is blocking the creation of an international treaty designed to protect access to books and reading material for blind people in poor countries.
The administration's move to stall the treaty comes after President Barack Obama vowed to support an "international instrument" to ensure the global blind population has access to reading materials. Advocates for the blind are strongly in favor of the treaty, while corporate publishers, who profit from the global status quo, are opposed.
Negotiations are currently taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, before a United Nations panel, and are scheduled to conclude on Wednesday. Nonprofit organizations representing the interests of the blind say the American delegation has been effective in negotiating substantive provisions in the pact that would help people living with disabilities. But they say the U.S. is balking at efforts to make those provisions part of a binding international treaty. Instead, the U.S. is seeking a non-binding slate of policy recommendations, which advocates for the blind worry would not effectively remove barriers to educational reading materials that are currently in place.
"We absolutely support a treaty," said Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, in an interview from Geneva with Knowledge Ecology International, another nonprofit group devoted to greater global access to information. "We believe that that's really the only way to ensure that countries will know it's important, and it's not just something they can sort of do, or do voluntarily, or do parts of."
Although the talks are not well-known domestically, both corporate publishers and advocates for people living with disabilities view it as a landmark treaty. Media that are accessible to the blind, like Braille works and audiobooks, are far more costly to create and distribute than traditional print publications, and feature a much smaller market. Many nations have specific copyright exceptions protecting such works, exempting their producers from having to pay costly royalties to publishers. But poor countries still have very limited resources to produce works for the blind, and thus have extremely limited libraries. An international treaty would make it easier for wealthier nations, like the United States, to share works with other countries.
"The treaty is essential to allow us to expand and serve the world," said Jim Fruchterman, founder of Bookshare, an online nonprofit American library with over 150,000 titles for the blind. Bookshare titles are available for free to U.S. schools and U.S. students, but not to citizens of developing nations. "In a lot of the developing world, the entire library might be 20 or 30 books," said Fruchterman.
The treaty would expand access to reading materials for the blind by establishing a specific exemption to traditional copyright standards for alternative publishing formats that benefit the blind and people with visual impairments. American publishers are generally supportive of the provision. Allen Adler, a top lobbyist with the Association of American Publishers, helped craft such a domestic U.S. law to accomplish exactly that. But publishers are concerned that finalizing an official treaty, instead of a nonbinding slate of policy recommendations, will establish a new intellectual property precedent that could cut into profits in other areas.
"We really don't want to establish a precedent on a series of treaties that specifically focus on trying to set forth minimal limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright owners," Adler told KEI in Geneva. "Up until now ... the treaties and other international agreements that have been devised ... have been to establish the minimal rights available to copyright owners, not the limitations and exceptions to those rights."
A treaty would explicitly require countries to establish new copyright protections for publications for the blind. Violating the treaty would subject nations to international sanctions. A less formal statement of policy would simply put a U.N. stamp of approval on permitting nations to reach their own individual accords on new standards. Countries have always been permitted to reach deals with each other on sharing materials to benefit the blind, but few are doing any actual work on the issue. There is no legislation pending in the American Congress to allow the U.S. to share such works with other nations. The blind community has been advocating for such legislation since the 1980s.
The Obama administration's delegation for the treaty talks is being led by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which declined to comment for this article. It also includes members of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, a White House body responsible for negotiating international trade pacts. USTR also declined to comment.
In April, Obama met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to discuss a host of international trade issues, and issued a joint statement supporting an "effective" international deal to support the blind, but did not specify whether an effective deal would be a formal treaty or a more informal agreement.
"The Presidents reaffirmed the commitment of both countries to the conclusion of an effective international instrument in the World Intellectual Property Organization that ensures that copyright is not a barrier to equal access to information, culture, and education for visually impaired persons and persons with print disabilities," the statement read.