President’s Message: What Can Marrakesh Do to Help Make Books Accessible for Everyone?

by Kim Charlson

Over the years, I have continued to be a staunch advocate for greater access to special format materials for people who are blind or visually impaired. In my work as a librarian, I deal with making materials accessible every day, in braille, large print or audio formats. Sometimes, it is frustrating when someone wants a specific title, and I discover that it exists in Canada or Great Britain, but I can’t get it for that person because of international copyright laws.
In 2009, ACB started to actively work on a treaty for the visually impaired through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), along with the World Blind Union. Eric Bridges and Melanie Brunson have both represented ACB at the numerous WIPO meetings that have taken place in Geneva, Switzerland between 2009 and 2013.
In June 2013, history was made in Marrakesh, Morocco, when all WIPO delegates voted to accept the treaty for the visually impaired. Following the acceptance of the treaty (now known as the Marrakesh Treaty), there was a one-year window where nearly 80 countries signed onto the treaty – 20 countries were required to start the ball rolling for country ratification. The U.S. signed onto the treaty in October of 2013, in the middle of the government shutdown, so it was done with little fanfare.
Now, the time has come to work and advocate for the U.S. Senate to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty.
During our 2015 midyear legislative seminar, the Marrakesh Treaty was one of ACB’s legislative priorities. Melanie Brunson prepared a very informative fact sheet on Marrakesh, and I want to share that document with you, to provide background information on this important issue that I believe truly resonates with all ACB members – especially once you understand the full extent of this ground-breaking treaty opportunity.
In order to be full participants in the society we live in, people who have visual impairments must be afforded alternative means of accessing books, magazines, and other printed materials. Students need access to textbooks. Employees need access to publications related to their chosen work, and all of us need access to the books and magazines that influence the cultural life of our communities. Although advances in technology in recent years have given people with visual impairments many more options for accessing printed materials in accessible formats, the World Blind Union estimates that we still have access to only about five percent of the books published worldwide each year. In parts of the world that are less developed, less than one percent of published works are accessible to people with print-reading disabilities.  This situation persists in spite of provisions in copyright law in countries such as the U.S. that allow producers of accessible format books to publish and distribute such accessible format works to people with print-reading disabilities. There are several reasons for this. First, with very few exceptions, copyright laws in countries worldwide, including our own, only allow producers of accessible format books to distribute them to eligible persons within their own country. These works cannot be exported. Also, our libraries cannot import works produced abroad without risking violation of copyright laws, both here and in the exporting country.
In an effort to remedy this situation, the World Intellectual Property Organization adopted the Treaty to Facilitate Access to Printed Material for People Who Are Blind or Have Other Print Reading Disabilities. This treaty is known as the Marrakesh Treaty, because it was adopted at a diplomatic conference held in Marrakesh, Morocco in 2013.
The Marrakesh Treaty received broad support from not only blindness organizations, but publishers and copyright law experts throughout the U.S. and around the world. It was signed by the United States on Oct. 2, 2013.
The Marrakesh Treaty is important to Americans who are visually impaired because it calls upon those nations who sign it to provide in their copyright law a limitation or exception that allows:

  • Reproduction of works, by an authorized entity, for the purpose of converting them into accessible format copies exclusively for the use of beneficiary persons.
  • Distribution of accessible format copies exclusively to beneficiary persons.
  • Export of accessible format copies of works, in order to make them available to a beneficiary person in another country.
  • Import of accessible format copies of works produced in another country, in order to make them available domestically.

In practical terms, this means that libraries and other organizations that produce accessible format copies of works for distribution to people with print-reading disabilities will be able to share those works with each other. That will ultimately free up resources that are currently used to make multiple copies of the same work, so that more publications can be put into accessible formats. The treaty contains provisions that protect both the rights of copyright holders and those who want to gain access to their copyrighted works.
Legislative Proposal
ACB urges members of the U.S. Senate to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty. We urge senators to adopt a ratification package that is narrow, protects the spirit of the treaty, and does not attempt to use this treaty as a vehicle for addressing extraneous issues of copyright law that could undermine the desired result: increased access to printed materials for people with print-reading disabilities.
We need the Marrakesh Treaty to ensure that people who are blind in the United States and throughout the world will have access to the printed word for generations to come! Please help us get Marrakesh passed by the U.S. Senate by reaching out to your senators to support the Marrakesh Treaty for the Visually Impaired. We will keep you posted on developments.