WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is doubling down on its efforts to block an international treaty that would allow access to books and reading material for blind citizens in poor countries.
On Tuesday, the United States and the European Union informally asked developing nations to postpone any talks about approving a treaty until after the U.S. election, according to delegates at the negotiations who were granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the talks. Advocates for the blind, who have spent years pushing for a treaty, have urged that one be finalized at the current round of negotiations. The talks are in Geneva, and are scheduled to conclude Wednesday. Negotiators have not officially considered any plan to delay talks.
Trade negotiators are currently wrangling over a treaty designed to provide access to reading materials in formats that are accessible to blind people, including Braille and audiobook platforms. Works used by the visually impaired are far more costly to create and distribute than traditional print publications, and have a much smaller market. Many nations have specific copyright exceptions protecting such works, exempting their producers from having to pay high 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 allow wealthier nations, like the United States, to share works with other countries.
By focusing on intellectual property issues, rather than government subsidies, the treaty would not cost governments any money.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which is leading negotiations for the Obama administration, declined to comment for this article. The administration has resisted efforts throughout negotiations to ensure that the final deal is an enforceable treaty, pushing instead to make any agreement an informal set of policy recommendations. Advocates for the blind warn that only an enforceable treaty would effectively expand access to reading materials, noting that nations have long been able to pass legislation to permit the sharing of blind-accessible works across borders, but have decided not to. There is no legislation pending in the U.S. Congress to establish such a program.
Corporate book publishers generally support the provisions for the blind, but are opposed to signing a treaty out of fears that doing so would set a new precedent in international negotiations that could cut into other profitable ventures, including textbooks and educational works. At the same United Nations meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, many developing countries in Africa are asking nations to study potential copyright exemptions and flexibilities that could be used to make textbooks and educational works more affordable in poor nations.
Alan Adler, a top lobbyist with the Association of American Publishers, laid out the publishing firms' position in an interview with James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit group devoted to information access.
"We realize that that is a very serious problem -- it's a difficult thing to provide market solutions for," Adler said, referring to media that is accessible for the blind. "So there is a need for some form of regulatory assistance in that area. With respect to educational uses of copyrighted works, the problem there is that there is an entire sector of the publishing industry in the United States whose specific purpose is to create high quality content including in digital formats for educational use."
In April, President Barack Obama issued a statement in conjunction with Brazil President Dilma Rousseff.
"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.