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Obama Administration Stalls Blind Rights Treaty For Another Year

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WASHINGTON -- Delegates from the United States and the European Union have managed to delay a key human rights treaty for the blind until at least 2013. Talks to secure a deal ended on Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, without agreement on draft language.

The U.S. and European blockade is supported by large publishing companies; developing nations and advocates for people living with disabilities object.

"I guess we haven't quite got there," said Maryanne Diamond, president of the World Blind Union, in a video interview with Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit group focused on information access. "So on one level, we're disappointed ... There is some good stuff in the text, but it isn't ready yet and there isn't agreement on it."

Dozens of groups representing the blind had hoped to finalize a global agreement providing that reading materials be made accessible to blind people, including through Braille and audiobook formats. Works used by the visually impaired are far more costly to create and distribute than traditional print publications and have a much smaller market. Although many nations already have copyright laws exempting the producers of such works from having to pay high royalties to publishers, poor countries still have very limited resources to produce such works and thus have extremely limited libraries for the blind. 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 help the blind without costing governments any money.

But during 10 days of negotiations under the auspices of a World Intellectual Property Organization panel, the U.S. delegation has opposed any deal that would produce an enforceable treaty, instead pushing for an informal slate of policy recommendations. Advocates for the blind and several poor countries have pointed out that the United States, which houses the largest libraries of blind-accessible publications, currently has no plans to adopt any such policy recommendations absent a formal treaty.

"At this point in time, we know clearly that everyone in the developing world wants a treaty, and the U.S. and the European Union don't want a treaty," Rahul Cherian told Love.

Corporate book publishers generally support copyright exemptions to help the blind, but opposed signing a treaty out of fears that doing so would set a new precedent in international negotiations that could eventually cut into other profitable ventures, including textbooks and educational works.

In April, President Barack Obama issued a joint statement with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff expressing support for "an effective international instrument ... 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."

There is no legislation pending in Congress that would implement any of the policy recommendations that have arisen in the talks, although negotiators have been wrangling over treaty language since the earliest days of the Obama administration. A binding treaty would require the United States and other nations to allow libraries to distribute works for the blind to developing nations or face international sanctions. Jim Fruchterman, founder of Bookshare, an online nonprofit library with more than 150,000 titles for the blind, told HuffPost on Monday that a treaty is key to his nonprofit library's efforts to expand abroad.

The Obama administration's delegation to the talks included representatives from the State Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The PTO, which led negotiations, declined to comment for this article.

Advocates for the blind will have another chance to secure a treaty in 2013, when the international panel meets again.

Clarification: A previous version of this article indicated that Bookshare could not expand abroad without a treaty. While it is more difficult and expensive to expand abroad without a treaty, it is, in fact, technically possible.

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