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Marrakesh Treaty: More access to books for the visually-impaired

I almost never write about work, but here's a piece of news related to my practice which I believe merits a post in my blog. Especially since it concerns two things that I feel passionate about: reading, and our citizens' access to books.

Have you ever wondered about how the visually impaired in our country gain access to reading materials? How much of the books we consume get to be enjoyed by the blind? How many of them even get to consume books? The reality is, a lot of our visually impaired countrymen hardly ever get access to materials that able-bodied people like us do. A major hurdle is our country's lack of resources to convert books into Braille or audio formats. There are also hardly ever any organizations or institutions that import materials in these formats. Another obstacle is our legal framework (particularly laws on intellectual property), which protects authors' and publishers' copyrighted books by disallowing the reproduction and distribution of their work without their permission. As such, no initiative is made to ensure that our literature is transformed into a format that is consumable by the visually impaired.

The good news is that very recently, the Philippines deposited its instrument of accession to the Marrakesh Treaty to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an agency of the United Nations. This allows for greater public access to literature, media, and other copyrightable works for the benefit of the blind and visually impaired.

What is the Marrakesh Treaty?

The “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled” is a treaty that aims to end the “book famine” faced by people who are blind and visually impaired. Through this document, it aims to give the visually impaired or visually disabled people in Contracting Parties greater access to literature, textbooks, and other printed materials. The treaty is administered by the WIPO.

Currently, of the millions of books published worldwide, only one to seven percent of them are made available to the 285 million persons in the world who are blind and visually impaired, 90% of whom live in low-income settings in developing countries. In the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) reports that over two million people nationwide are blind or suffering from poor vision.

This is partly due to access barriers in copyright laws enacted in many jurisdictions, including the Philippines. The treaty helps remove these barriers in the Contracting Parties by providing mandatory limitations and exceptions that allow for reproduction and distribution of books designed to be accessible to the blind, visually impaired, and print disabled (VIPs). “Beneficiary persons” under the treaty are defined as people who are blind, visually impaired, reading disabled, or have physical disabilities that get in the way of effectively holding a book, turning its pages, or focusing on the page and its contents.

Conceived in line with the human rights principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the Marrakesh Treaty is the first copyright treaty to include a clear human rights perspective.

How does the Marrakesh Treaty allow for access to books and reading materials to the visually impaired?

First, the treaty requires ratifying countries to provide an exception to their domestic copyright law, allowing beneficiary persons and their organizations to make accessible format books without the need for permission from the copyright holder (i.e. author or publisher). “Accessible formats” in this case refer to large print for people with low vision, Braille for those with total loss of sight, and audio books for all types of VIPs.

Second, the treaty allows for importation, exportation, and distribution of accessible versions of books and other copyrighted works, again without copyright holder permission. This bodes well for Contracting Parties who have very few resources to transcribe works into accessible formats, as they can import from other countries with a vast collection of books, literature, and other works which are already VIP-friendly.

But how are copyright holders such as authors and publishers of converted work protected under the treaty?

The Marrakesh Treaty provides that only “authorized entities” in the Contracting Parties are allowed to reproduce and distribute works in accessible formats. These are organizations authorized or recognized by the government to provide education, instructional training, adaptive reading, or information access to beneficiary persons on a non-profit basis (e.g. schools and libraries). It also includes non-profit organizations that provide the same services to beneficiary persons as one of its primary activities or institutional obligations.

Under the treaty, only authorized entities shall be permitted to obtain from another authorized entity an accessible format copy of any work and supply those copies to beneficiary persons by any means. This way, the authors and publishers of work converted into accessible formats are assured that their creations are converted, reproduced, and distributed only for the benefit of the visually impaired. At the same time, the beneficiary persons are guaranteed that they receive accessible formats that are in compliance with the provisions of the Treaty, i.e. legally converted and imported.

The Intellectual Property (IP) Code of the Philippines, Republic Act No. 8293, as amended by Republic Act No. 10372, actually already contains a provision that allows for the reproduction or distribution of published articles or materials in a specialized format for the benefit of the blind and visually impaired. But with the Philippines’ accession to the Marrakesh Treaty, the country is now also given more access to other contracting countries’ collection of works already in accessible format through the treaty’s cross-border exchange provisions. To comply with the country’s obligations under the treaty, the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines (IPOPHL) has assisted in the drafting of a bill submitted to Congress to further amend and widen the copyright limitation in the IP Code for the benefit of the VIPs.

Hopefully, if enacted, these amendments will greatly improve access to books for the two percent (2%) of our population who have visual impairments and physical disabilities that prevent them from reading. The Marrakesh Treaty’s clear humanitarian and social development dimension should have an impact in ending the “book famine” currently experienced by visually impaired Filipinos by positively increasing the quality of their lives through easier access to knowledge and information.

It's fantastic news isn't it? Of course, there needs to be government support for the book famine to really be addressed. Now that the legal framework is there, I hope more government institutions and organizations initiate the importation and exportation of works in accessible format, and allow for their wide commercial distribution all over the country. Imagine this: one day, it's not only us visually-abled people who get to enjoy Big Bad Wolf; it's not only us who get to participate in book trades; it's not only us who get to have a thrill out of random trips to the bookstore. I'm hopeful that soon, the blind can also have their own book hauls, as they gain more access to materials that are transformed especially for their use and enjoyment.