Meeting Focuses on Access to Digital Content by the Visually Impaired

07 November 2003, Switzerland

A meeting held at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva on November 3, 2003 focused on how the visually impaired can access copyrighted materials in the on-line world in a legally-acceptable way. The meeting reviewed the current situation regarding the provision of copyrighted works to visually impaired people, and considered the technical, economic and legal aspects of ensuring access by the blind and partially sighted to written works in the on-line environment. The meeting on digital content for the visually impaired took place in conjunction with WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), meeting in Geneva from November 3 to 5, 2003. There are an estimated 180 million blind and partially sighted people in the world who, in order to access reading material may be required to copy a protected work to alternate formats such as Braille, large print, talking books or sign language if the work is not commercially available in the alternate format. The copyright exceptions written into many national laws mean that such copying can be undertaken in the off-line world without infringing the author's rights. The challenge today is to achieve common international approaches to exceptions to the exclusive rights of copyright holders in the on-line environment, to make it easier for alternative format producers to share resources and help reduce the gap between what is available to sighted people and what is available to the visually impaired. The Internet and other digital technologies offer a number of potential advantages to visually impaired people and those working on their behalf by making it easier and faster to produce the alternative formats they need and by increasing and diversifying the channels for information delivery. International treaties governing copyright, such as the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT), which sets out the legal framework to safeguard the interests of creators in cyberspace, do permit individual member states to introduce exceptions into their copyright legislation for the benefit of groups, such as the visually impaired, under specific circumstances. While the international conventions on copyright and related rights have adopted a technology-neutral approach to limitations and exceptions, national law frequently contains more specific limitations and exceptions which may not yet apply to new digital technologies. WIPO Assistant Director General, Geoffrey Yu, said that discussion of the special concerns of the visually impaired was timely as governments were considering the implementation of provisions of the WCT, including the scope of its limitations and exceptions to copyright. 'We felt the time was ripe to organize this meeting, particularly in light of the new possibilities offered by digital technologies,' he said. 'Those limitations and exceptions that are built into international and national copyright law exist precisely to accommodate exceptional circumstances and the needs of groups, such as the blind and partially sighted, to be able to access information and enjoy works as fully integrated members of society, without affecting the normal exploitation of an author's work or prejudicing his interests', he added. The application of limitations and exceptions under the WCT is subject to what is known as the three-step test. In the first instance, the application of an exception or limitation only applies in certain cases, for example, for people with disabilities; secondly, it must not affect the 'normal exploitation' (that is, it must not compete in the market place with a standard work) and thirdly, it must not unreasonably prejudice the interests of the author. In cases where the first and second steps are satisfied, but the authors interests are considered to be prejudiced, a licensing scheme would typically be established. Carlos Teysera Rouco, President of the Copyright Council of Uruguay, who also chaired the meeting, underlined the importance of this issue, particularly in view of rapid growth in the use of the Internet. He told participants that communication technologies, coupled with today's electronic media has resulted in a wide choice for users to access content in various digital formats. Mr. Rouco described this as 'encouraging' and highlighted the need to ensure a balance between the rights of authors and the ability of the visually impaired to access copyrighted materials. Speaking on behalf of the World Blind Union (WBU), David Mann said that a balance needs to be struck between copyright and rights of access to information and learning. He said millions of blind and partially sighted people stand to benefit from greater access to information through the systematic application of exceptions to copyright in both the off-line and on-line worlds. 'WBU believes that every state in the world should have exceptions or limitations in its national law, for the benefit of the blind and partially sighted people,' he said. He urged all countries to consider how they can introduce these exceptions and limitations 'as a matter of urgency.' 'Blind and partially sighted people can only access the written word, whether originally displayed on paper or on computer screen, if the presentation of that material is adapted in some way. Adaptations including enlarging, altering features such as color or font, transferring into tactile code or into an audio format. In no way is modification to content suggested, only to forms of presentation,' Mr. Mann stressed. He said that most accessible material today is still created by specialist agencies operating on charitable funds or social subventions. 'This means that in practice only a small proportion of the material published currently becomes available in accessible formats and it is rare for accessible versions to come out until months or years after the original,' he said. The WBU also called for coordinated international action to allow unhindered transfer of accessible material created in one country to blind and partially sighted people in another country. Mr. Mann urged WIPO to 'play its part in realising for blind and partially sighted people throughout the world their right to read.' A number of governmental delegates said that WIPO should assist in advising governments on the implementation of national legislation that strikes a balance between the interests of the rights owners and those of the visually impaired people. They stressed that international cooperation is essential to the successful implementation of the relevant standards cited to facilitate access by the visually impaired to digital content. Several speakers at the meeting said that the advent of digital rights management and technological protection measures can create barriers to accessing digital content. They urged that such mechanisms should not act as an inadvertent block to accessing digital content. Computerisation and digital technology have opened new possibilities for facilitating access to works in alternate formats that are not readily available commercially, and new tools have been, and are being, introduced for this purpose. Agencies producing Braille or large print now routinely key in or scan original material into a computer, subject it to translation software and produce it via a Braille embosser or laser printer. In this process, an 'intermediate' electronic copy is produced which may usefully be kept in case reprints are required, a document is updated or something originally requested in large print is later needed in Braille. For more information on the World Intellectual Property Organisation, CLICK HERE.