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The right to Read : Copyright and Visually Impaired People

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David MANN

Chair, Copyright Working Group, European Blind Union


The Right to Read - Copyright and Beyond

I hope you will forgive me for having slightly changed the title of this presentation..

Regular participants in Braillenet or Inserim conferences will have heard me talk about copyright twice already, in June 1998 (http://www.snv.jussieu.fr/inova/publi/ntevh/copyright.htm)
and February 2000 (http://www.braillenet.org/colloques/Bnet2000/actes/mann_fr.htm).
As this is the last presentation of the afternoon, you might be tempted to leave early if I don't talk about something else as well!

So, I will first summarise where we are in the European Union and the wider world in relation to copyright legislation, and then indicate where we would like to go. After that, I would like to examine other ways in which the "Right to Read" of blind and partially sighted people can be pursued, with publishers and governments.

Exceptions and Limitations to Copyright Law.

The European Blind Union respects the concept of copyright, that is to say the protection of the moral and economic rights of authors and publishers. At the same time, we have always asserted that it is socially unacceptable for copyright restrictions to operate in such a way as to delay or deny access to published information by those who, because of an impairment, need to change the manner in which the text or other information is presented.

The European Copyright Directive
(English version at http://www.europa.eu.int/information_society/topics/multi/digital_rights/doc/directive_copyright_en.pdf, French version at http://www.europa.eu.int/information_society/topics/multi/digital_rights/doc/directive_copyright_fr.pdf)
was finally promulgated in June 2001, and should have been transposed into national law by last December. Most states failed to meet that deadline but will be completing transposition during 2003. Article 5.3.b of the Directive allows member states to introduce in their national legislation exceptions or limitations to copyright for the benefit of people with a disability that affects the way in which they read. Hence exceptions could be extended to other categories of disabled people as well as to blind or partially sighted citizens.

The approach of the Directive does no more than reflect existing international treaties - the Berne Convention and the WIPO Copyright Treaty of 1996 (http://www.europa.eu.int/information_society/topics/multi/digital_rights/doc/directive_copyright_en.pdf). These allow individual states to legislate for exceptions for "special cases" which do not conflict with the normal exploitation of the work or the rights holders' legitimate interests.

The Scandinavian countries, along with Spain and Portugal, had exceptions for the benefit of visually impaired people on their statute books well before the conclusion of the Directive. Ireland joined them in 2000, and the United Kingdom is about to bring into force an Act of Parliament agreed last year. Germany, Austria and France have drawn up draft laws. The development in France is, if I may say so, particularly welcome, since France has been perceived rightly or wrongly, as a country in which both publishers and governments were very firmly set against such exceptions.

The drawback to these otherwise encouraging developments is that each country is finding its own solution, its own combination of exceptions or statutory licences, its own definition of who can and cannot benefit from the exception and operate under it.

The same scenario applies outside the European Union, where a number of major countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan have introduced legislation, but each in their own way.

In the digital age this diversity is much more frustrating than it would have been before. Resources are scarce, and only a small proportion of the material published in print ever finds its way into an accessible format. It therefore makes eminent sense for material that has been produced in one country to be available to blind people in another. If a work has been produced in braille in, say, Canada, it is much easier simply to send the file formatted for braille over the Internet to France, Britain or anywhere else, for hard copy production at the user's end. Likewise with digital audio and any other "special" file. But copyright laws prevent this. However generous the laws in the producer country, they do not apply to other jurisdictions, even if the destination countries have appropriate legislation of their own.

So, within the European Union and beyond, we need first to ensure that each country has reasonable exceptions or limitations in its own copyright regime. We should then try to identify common themes within this diversity and find ways of overcoming territorial limitations..

The World Blind Union (WBU) has been building relationships with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) with just this in mind. One of the major concerns of this UN agency is to encourage developing countries to build their own strong intellectual property laws.

We hope that within the next year or so WIPO will introduce into the advice it gives developing countries one or more models for possible exceptions to copyright in favour of visually impaired people. We also hope they will soon initiate a survey of national laws which, as well as asking if relevant exceptions exist, will ask what is said about "importation" rights. World bodies move slowly, but this could be the first step towards international agreements at government level on the exchange of material from one jurisdiction where there are appropriate exceptions to another with similar ones.

Overcoming Technical Blocks

When you are climbing a mountain, you often think you have reached the summit only to find another ridge beyond. Similarly, where copyright exceptions have been achieved and one set of barriers to information removed, we find ourselves blocked by technological protection measures and some forms of digital rights management.

As with copyright in general, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with preventing unauthorised copying or using software to control access to your work, administer payments and so on. Unfortunately, though, these systems usually operate in such a way as to render screen reading systems impotent. You cannot alter the size, font or colour of the display from an e-book or an on-line publication, you cannot turn it into synthetic speech or refreshable braille if it is governed by any of these measures.

Some dedicated e-book readers actually do have a speech facility, but publishers "disable" this in their publications at certain levels of security, probably because they want to negotiate their audio rights separately.

The European Copyright Directive is potentially quite helpful here - given the general nature of such instruments. In Article 6.4. it lays down that member states must ensure that the beneficiaries of any exceptions for disabled people (along with those of some other exceptions) must be given access to material which they are prevented from reading by a technological protection measure. In the absence of voluntary agreements, member states must ensure that adequate mechanisms exist to achieve this. This does not necessarily mean that blind people would be allowed to hack into systems - although the Danish implementation appears to suggest that they can if the rights holder is slow in responding to complaints. The solution may be administrative, and it may consist of making "unblocked" copies available to bona fide beneficiaries. How well it will work in each country remains to be seen.

The ideal solution to these problems would be a technological one, the implementation of inclusive design principles, but I suspect we will always be running hard to keep up with development sand so we need administrative protection as a fallback.

It is essential to remember that the provisions of Article 6.4 of the Directive only apply if the country in question already has relevant exceptions in its copyright law. This is one more reason why such an exception is vital.

Closing the Information Gap

You may think that I am obsessed with copyright. Let me assure you that I fully realise that copyright barriers are not the only ones which prevent us from fully exercising our right to read. Sheer lack of human, technical and financial resources constitutes a major problem.

In the UK, it has been estimated that only around 5% of the material published in print is available in any accessible format one year later. This included both commercial publications and titles reproduced by specialist agencies. To close this divide, we need to work closely with publishers and with government.

Working with publishers, nationally and internationally

Our work would be much easier if publishers were able to provide us with an authentic electronic file of their titles, preferably before publication. This sounds easier than it is. My understanding is that publishers themselves do not always have such "authentic" files, and that the only available versions are actually full of printers' formatting instructions. There is, anyway, no consistency of file specification within the industry.

There are two paths one can go down, that of compulsion and that of building trust. We could call for all publishers to be obliged to deposit an electronic version of their titles, to an agreed specification, in some sort of central repository to which individuals or organisations could have access. This has been mooted in the USA in respect of educational books. Federal legislation has not gone through, but work on agreeing a single national specification has proceeded nonetheless, with the Daisy Standard winning out. Some individual states in the USA do have laws compelling the deposit of an electronic copy if a book is to be used in the public education system. Acceptance of your work by the public education authorities is no doubt a substantial carrot in persuading the publishers that such laws are worthwhile.

The alternative is for agencies and publishers to build up relations of trust on a voluntary basis. A publisher would learn to accept that the file passed over would not be abused and that accessible material would go to a controlled distribution group. This might open the way to a range of new and imaginative forms of collaboration. An agency might convert a file to the Daisy format and give it back to the publisher for them to exploit commercially. An agency might undertake braille production while advising the publisher on how to produce acceptable large print themselves. Agencies might make available to publishers electronic files which they have themselves made of earlier titles, of which the publisher has no electronic record.

The aim of such collaboration is twofold. To facilitate the production of more titles, more promptly, and to encourage the development of a larger commercial market in accessible material.

The commercial market for audio and large print is small in terms of the number of titles produced, especially unabridged titles. It is in our interests to make common cause with publishers in finding ways of increasing these markets. We should be campaigning alongside them to call for tax incentives which would encourage ventures in this area. Within Europe, we should be campaigning with authors and publishers to have value added tax (VAT) removed from audio books so as to bring them into line with print books.

WBU, working in collaboration with the Libraries for the Blind Section of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) is now developing links with the International Publishers Association. At a meeting in Geneva earlier this month, we agreed to set up a permanent joint working group which can help to allay publishers' fears and explore the ways in which we can work together for our shared aim of getting creative material to as many people as possible.

Support from Governments

Where does the responsibility ultimately lie for guaranteeing our right to read?

Sometimes we can assert that the originator of information has a duty to make it accessible at their own cost. This is true of "citizen information", for example Government fact sheets, tax forms, information on voting or health promotion leaflets. It is equally true with "customer information" such as bills from utility companies, bank statements, restaurant menus or instruction manuals for domestic equipment..

In the education sector, those who provide the education have a duty to make the curriculum accessible.

But there is a whole range of other, general reading material which does not fall into any of these categories. The vast range of published material which forms the backbone of the retail book trade and local public libraries. However one classifies it, this is the bedrock of our culture, without which education is incomplete and life not rich. Whether a classical novel or a light romance, a biography, travelogue, collection of poems or political memoirs, its unavailability to visually impaired readers deprives them of full participation in Society. It is difficult to argue here that the responsibility lies with authors or publishers to undertake loss-making activities. Even with compulsory electronic deposit, the production of alternative formats will often not be commercially viable. The financial responsibility should not lie with the blind individual or with the charitable agencies which serve them. It must lie with the public purse, with society as a whole, with the Government.

In the UK we have called on the Government to set up a major new "Access to Reading" Fund. We have suggested that £20m (30 million Euro) per year be made available. New and existing agencies could bid for capital and revenue projects. Only in this way will we come anywhere near closing the information divide.

You will be astonished to hear that the British Government has not yet agreed to our request! Such sums do not appear magically - unless there is a war. It will take a lot more campaigning on our part.

In some countries, notably the USA, Government already puts substantial sums into the production and distribution of accessible formats. It may not be enough, but it is a lot better than nothing.


The Right to Read is fundamental. It is recognised in Articles 19 and 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a society so dependent on visual information, - be it on paper or on a computer screen - the right to read is crucial.

Sound copyright exceptions which acknowledge the rights of disabled people as well as those of authors and publishers are an important basis for the development of trust and collaboration between all parties. We need then to build on that foundation a recognition that our Right to Read will only be fully realised if publishers and governments also play their part at both national and international level.

April 2003.

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