Centre for Internet & Society

South-East Asia is host to one-third of the world’s 39 million blind people. Over 20 million live in India alone. This week’s special session of the World Intellectual Property Organization aims to clean up the text of an international treaty to facilitate access to books for the blind and visually impaired community. It is thus of prime importance for India, and some there worry that issues such as commercial availability could undermine the treaty’s effectiveness.

This blog post by Catherine Saez was published in Intellectual Property Watch on February 16, 2013, Nirmita Narasimhan is quoted.

According to Nirmita Narasimhan, policy director with the Center for Internet and Society, barely five percent of published books in India are available in accessible formats. Visually impaired people struggle to get access to “education, news and entertainment, cultural materials, and employment.”

For instance, she told Intellectual Property Watch “even where there are seats reserved forl the blind in universities, there may not be enough applicants/candidates to fill those seats because of lack of educational resources.”

“Leisure reading and being up to date with the latest bestsellers is of course also a problem because these are unavailable at the time these reach the global market,” she said.

“Until last year, we did not have any fair use exception in our copyright law permitting conversion,” Narasimhan said. The new copyright amendment [pdf], which amended the Indian copyright Act of 1957, was adopted in May 2012 (IPW, Inside Views, 22 January 2013) but “has not yet translated into significant results in terms of accessible books,” Narasimhan said. The amendment allows conversion of books to accessible formats.

There are very limited resources in India, “both in terms of finances as well as manpower to carry out conversion activities, and a demand which far outstrips the supply, hence disability organisations struggle to keep up with the demand for accessible books,” she said, adding that “unlike organisations in other countries, organisations in India do not receive any government support for carrying out funding activities.”

Progress is slow and we still do not have complete access to global online collections such as Bookshare since there is some ambiguity regarding the definition of an ‘accessible format’ in our copyright act. Talking books are not explicitly mentioned in the Act,” she added. “Talking books” refer to books under a Digital Accessible Information SYstem (Daisy) format. The Copyright Amendment Bill of 2012 also does not address import and export, she said.

According to the Daisy Consortium, which includes 20 full members and over 40 associate members, a Daisy book is “a set of digital files” that includes “one or more digital audio files containing a human narration of part or all of the source text, a marked-up file containing some or all of the text (…), a synchronisation file to relate markings in the text file with time points in the audio file, and a navigation control file which enables the user to move smoothly between files while synchronisation between text and audio is maintained.“

“The Daisy Forum of India is an active network of over 85 organisations who are converting into Daisy, but the number of books with them is still significantly lower than those available in other countries,” she said.

“Technological solutions are still by and large unavailable in rural areas,” Narasimhan said. “Hence, while solutions like electronic text are useful in cities, audio or Braille would still be the primary means of reading for the blind in rural India.”

India is also working on a draft Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill. In particular, Article 51 on access to information and communication technology states that measures should be taken so that “all content in whichever medium whether audio, print or electronic shall be

made available to persons with disabilities in accessible format,” and that “persons with disabilities have access to electronic media by providing for audio description, sign language interpretation and close captioning.”

International Treaty of Utmost Importance

“Countries like India could benefit tremendously from access to accessible versions of books in libraries around the world,” according to Narasimhan. “It would dispense with the administrative mechanism of seeking copyright permissions, which would greatly ease the life of disability organisations engaged in conversions.”

A paper, posted on the CIS-India website on 23 January, by Rahul Cherian, founder of Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy, said next week’s session “is probably the last change to sort out the major outstanding issues in the text of the document before the diplomatic conference.”

“One of the most critical issues that remain outstanding is the desire that some government negotiators have to link the use of the treaty provisions or copyright exceptions to commercial unavailability of the work in accessible formats,” he wrote, underlining the “impossibility of verifying commercial availability with any degree of certainty.”

In particular, the linkage between commercial availability and the exceptions appear at two places in the treaty, he said: in Article C (National law limitations and exceptions on accessible format copies) and in Article D (Cross-Border exchange of accessible format copies).

The paper gives the example of the complexity of exception in relation to cross-border exchange. “Imagine that the United Kingdom introduces a provision in their copyright law allowing the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to export accessible format copies to people with visual impairment in Chennai but only after verifying that the accessible format copy cannot be otherwise obtained within a reasonable time and at a reasonable price.”

“Remember that ‘reasonable price’ in India means that the accessible format copy of the work is available at prices that are affordable in that market, taking into account the needs and income disparities of persons who have limited vision and those with print disabilities,” it states.

He questioned how the RNIB based in the UK could even begin to undertake this exercise which would entail several steps such as checking whether the accessible format copy is available in India, understanding the needs and income disparities of those with limited vision and print disabilities, and checking the cost of the accessible format copy and determine whether the cost of the accessible format copy is reasonable.

Linking commercial availability and exceptions as mentioned in Article C, Cherian said, “will lead to countries such as India being put under pressure from the European Union and the United States to amend our Copyright Act and linking our exceptions to commercial availability,” and he added, “the same applies to countries that want to introduce copyright exceptions after the Treaty.”

Rahul Cherian died unexpectedly on 7 February.

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