International Copyright Treaty for the Blind – Sowing the Seeds

I was an odd child, I suppose. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in politics. Not just the political theatre (we had some larger than life characters in New Zealand politics back then) although that was great. What really interested me was the idea that Parliament is where laws are made. The idea that someone could stand for office, be elected, and then change laws and change lives.

Most kids couldn’t wait to be old enough to drink, or drive…preferably the former never before the latter I hope. But I couldn’t wait to be old enough to vote.

In 1994, the organisation then known as the Royal new Zealand Foundation for the Blind decided to appoint a Manager of Government Relations. Everyone said the outcome was a foregone conclusion, they knew who they were going to appoint. Nevertheless, I thought I could really make a difference in this role, articulating the case to legislators and policy makers about blindness issues, acquainting the wider public about these issues through media interviews, building and maintaining networks.

So despite the conventional wisdom that the process was just for show, I decided that if I didn’t try, I’d always wonder what might have happened if I had. I applied, got through the shortlist, gave a presentation to the final group who were making the decision, and got this very high profile position at a young age. Some people called it a “bold appointment”. I think you can probably substitute the word “crazy” or “risky” for “bold”.

Suddenly, I was in New Zealand’s capital, working in a pretty tough environment at that time for those of us interested in social policy. I had to hit the ground running, because the moment I got there, New Zealand was rewriting its Copyright Act. This was, perhaps, a once in a generation opportunity to enshrine a fundamental point of principle in New Zealand law. People understand the concept of barrier free access, when that barrier is a physical one. If there are steps, let there also be ramps. Let’s ensure that door handles are at an appropriate height for those using wheelchairs. Let’s ensure curb cuts aren’t so high that they impede wheelchair access, but not so minuscule that a user of a white cane can’t tell when they leave the pavement and enter the road. These are all essential provisions of an accessible, inclusive society.

The concept of reducing barriers to information access was much less accepted and understood. In those days, it was necessary for the Foundation to seek the permission of the copyright holder before they could make a book available in alternative formats, usually braille and talking book. Sometimes, it took many months, occasionally longer, before the copyright holder with give consent. In those days it was unlikely a blind person could ever read a best seller while it was still on the best seller list. Sometimes the copyright holder would simply decline, effectively saying that blind people may not read this work.

If an architect had designed a building which failed to comply with modern accessibility laws, the law said that it could be modified to make it accessible. It wasn’t necessary to go back to the originating architect to get their permission, despite the design of the building being the intellectual property of the architect. Similarly,  the Foundation was making the book accessible, yet in this case, that somehow in the minds of authors constituted a theft of intellectual property, unless they had in their generosity consented to making the book accessible. Yes, sadly when issues of IP come up, the word theft is too often used irrationally and emotionally.

So one of my first acts in this new role was to advocate, along with Mary Schnackenberg and Clive Lansink, for a provision that allowed a qualifying organisation to make an alternative version of a work for the use of the blind.

It was a baptism of fire, meeting with the individual members of the Select Committee, then submitting to it formerly, counteracting the somewhat shrill rhetoric coming from those who opposed the amendment. Despite support across the political spectrum, it wasn’t smooth sailing. I recall getting a call one day from the head of an author’s organisation, asking me in heated tones if I liked stealing from everyone, or just authors. I sought to point out that not a single word of the material was being changed, The Foundation does not abridge the titles it produces, it was a simple issue of providing the material in a special format.

In general, New Zealanders believe in a fair go for everyone. Recognition of the talking book programme in particular was high, and ultimately, I had my first legislative victory early on in the role when the amendment was agreed to, and the Copyright Act 1994 was finally passed. I had a number of life changing victories while in that position, but there’s something special about the first one. The bottle of bubbles tasted  good that night.

I don’t know if New Zealand was the first country to enshrine a position like this in legislation, but we were certainly one of the first. After that, I was contacted by organisations in the US, the UK, Australia and elsewhere, to learn more about our law and emulate it. Two years after our legislation, the Chafee Amendment was passed in the United States, paving the way for Bookshare and the easier production of special format material in the US.

The problem with all of these separate efforts, significant though they were, is that they didn’t tackle the critical question of the international exchange of special format material. To do that, it was my view that WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, needed to take up this issue at an international level and forge a treaty.

Initially, there was no interest at all from key players in this idea. But ultimately the time was right. Other endeavours have taken me away from the advocacy field in recent years, as I’ve sought to make a difference in other ways. Despite the same old arguments about theft of intellectual property and concerns over protection of that same intellectual property, language has, extraordinarily, been found with which everyone can live and a treaty on international copyright for the blind is a reality. It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this.

It’s a remarkable achievement of advocacy, negotiation, tenacity and compromise, and I congratulate everyone who made it happen.

Since you’re reading this, you have access to some sort of computer device, and may be wondering what relevance a treaty like this has in an era of iBooks and Kindle. The vast majority of the world’s blind population do not yet have access to such technology. Even in developed countries, the majority of blind people are over the age of 80, due to the onset of age related conditions. Some will pick themselves up and learn how to use a computer with assistive technology, but most will not. Special format materials are still needed, and they are a precious resource. They cost a lot to make, and those producing them can only take on a fraction of the books published. It’s critical that the international exchange of special format material is facilitated, to avoid duplication of this valuable resource. That said, those of us who are fortunate enough to be online can look forward to full access to the Bookshare catalogue.

News of this remarkable outcome comes on the eve of blindness convention time in the United States. The National Federation of the Blind will meet in Florida beginning later this week, and the following week, the American Council of the Blind will meet in Ohio. There are people out there, some of them futurists, some of them cynics, who suggest that such organisations are no longer relevant in an online age, where anyone behind the keyboard can change the world. The Internet is an empowering tool, there’s no question about that, and you can change things through online activism. But it is one tool in the arsenal, not a replacement for the organised blind movement. There are times when only collective action, sometimes international collective action, can get a job done. It is so rewarding to come up with an idea, see it progress, and become enshrined in policy or law. The organised blind movement is an opportunity for you to play a constructive role in making the world a better place for us all.

It’s nice to think that in solving New Zealand’s internal copyright access barriers in 1994, we dropped a little stone in the intellectual property ocean that helped to change the world. Never give up hope. Sometimes, the idea is right, but the time may be wrong. Being a fundamentally optimistic person, I believe that ultimately, the idea and the timing will align.

3 Comments

  1. Bruce Toews

    As someone who works in the accessible book profession, I can attest to the dismay one feels when producing a book that has already been produced in another country. Having a sense of how much books cost to produce, it angers me to see money thrown away for the purpose of reinventing the wheel. But until these efforts can be shared internationally, the duplicity is necessary: Candians still have the right to read.

    Another frustration is that a country’s agencies will, often as not, focus on books written in their country. CNIB, for example, puts an emphasis on Canadian literature. So what happens when the book everyone is reading was written in the United States or Britain? Unless the book has the same viral qualities of Harry Potter books, either they take their time getting the book to us or we have to purchase it from another library. Thankfully, CNIB and RNIB have exchange policies, meaning we can often obtain a book from them rather than spend thousands doing it ourselves, and vice versa. But since NLS closed this avenue to us, the price to CNIB has been tremendous, and the price to the blind reader who simply wants to read has been incalculable.

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