New international treaty allows global book sharing for blind persons
The right-to-read Marrakesh Treaty enters into force today - but not for EU citizens
“The primary goal of new knowledge is the service of the common good of the human community. This common good must be served in its fullness, not according to a reductionist vision that is subordinated by some people only to their advantage; rather, it is to be based on a logic that leads to the acceptance of greater responsibility.”
-Vatican Representative Archbishop Tomasi speaking on Marrakesh Treaty
Today we have reason to celebrate. Millions of blind and other visually-impaired persons will have greater access to reading materials of all kinds thanks to the entry into force of the “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled” of the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations agency. This is great news and a hard-fought historic victory for the human rights of persons with disabilities. It is also proof that a well organized civil society campaign can forge a transnational movement that at once seals a strong alliance with countries of the Global South while succeeding in overcoming the initial strong opposition to even the idea of a Treaty from both the US and the EU.
It is the first time that human rights criteria, in this case the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, have been used as a basis for an international copyright treaty that makes an exception to intellectual property rules to enlarge user access.. Until now visually-impaired and other print-disabled personas have suffered a “book famine” which has meant they are deprived from reading over 95% of new books published each year. The great majority of blind persons live in the Global South and are among the world´s poorest and disadvantaged people. In this context Marrakesh Treaty helps overcome the legal barriers of copyright that have prevented the cross-border sharing of works formatted for the visually-impaired. Blind persons organizations and libraries in the countries that have ratified the treaty will now be able share works they have converted into braille or accessible digital formats with their peers in other countries that are partners of the Treaty. Marrrakesh opens up many doors. For example, a biology textbook published in Canada can be shared with a blind university student in India, a contemporary Spanish novel can be shared with blind young people at a Honduran public library or a Belgian EU law book can be a reference for a blind international lawyer in Senegal.
The bad news is that the EU´s 25 million visually disabled citizens will not yet be able to enjoy the benefits of the Treaty because the EU and its member states have regrettably not ratified this landmark international legal instrument. The EU has not ratified the Marrakesh Treaty due to political hair-splitting, far-fetched and refuted legal competence arguments and the pressure of a special interest industry lobby group. The EU (principally a few large member states such as Germany and Italy in the Council) have shamefully wasted three years without making any progress toward ratification and implementation of the Treaty. A few weeks ago the European Commission brought forth legislation to adapt the Marrakesh Treaty to EU law and it will be considered by the European Parliament´over the next few months. A lot of hard work will be needed in the European Parliament to assure swift and satisfactory approval of this new legislation and to invite EU member states express their assent to ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty with no further delay.
The Marrakesh Treaty has set a marvelous precedent in international law because it uniquely combines disability rights, development goals for access to culture in the Global South, access to knowledge in the digital sphere, copyright reform for users, recognition of the key intermediary role of librarians and the importance of civil society initiatives for international lawmaking.
Overall, today is the day to express special gratitude to an exceptional group of three or four dozen key civil society campaigners around the world who have worked brilliantly and tirelessly for a number of years through a roller-coaster ride of torturous meetings, political betrayals and alliances, high hopes and bitter despairs, in order to make this Treaty possible.
The Marrakesh Treaty proves that positive change can be made, even in global institutions and against great odds. In today´s world this is not a small thing.