Negotiations for Visually Impaired Treaty Get Green Light at WIPO
In a high-profile decision on Tuesday, members of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) agreed to convene a diplomatic conference to negotiate a treaty aimed at improving access to copyrighted material for the visually impaired and print disabled.
The decision to convene the diplomatic conference - the highest level of negotiations at WIPO - was taken at the 17-18 December extraordinary session of the organisation’s General Assembly.
According to the World Blind Union (WBU), there are 285 million blind and partially sighted people worldwide - 90 percent of which live in developing countries and least developed countries (LDCs). However, they note, only one to seven percent of the world’s published books are ever available in formats that blind and partially sighted people can read.
The treaty would allow visually impaired readers access to works that would be normally unavailable to them under national copyright laws or cross-border regulations. It would also mark the first time WIPO members adopt a legal instrument on limitations and exceptions to copyright in recent years.
Morocco has offered to host the conference, which will be held in June 2013.
Consensus on diplomatic conference
The decision to finalise the treaty comes after four years of controversial negotiations at WIPO’s copyright body, the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR). Member states at the SCCR had previously butted heads on whether such a legal instrument should be a legally binding treaty or if it would take the form of a softer option, such as a joint recommendation. (See Bridges Weekly 24 October 2012)
“It’s time for us to get down to action, to work constructively in order to produce a positive outcome,” Benin said on behalf of the LDCs. “In a wish to promote justice and equity and fairness, we must ensure that access to knowledge is shared by all and access to education is available to all.”
“After so many years, there is hardly any reason for any Member State to say no to June 2013,” Brazil added on behalf of the Development Agenda Group - a coalition of WIPO like-minded countries supporting a development-oriented perspective on IP issues.
The US - who had previously been lukewarm to launching negotiations for a treaty - also expressed in broad terms its support for the decision.
“We are pleased to join the consensus today in calling for a Diplomatic Conference in June 2013 to complete this work and produce a legally-binding agreement to establish international norms for copyright exceptions for persons with print disabilities,” the US stated.
On this point, the WBU commented that “though [we] would prefer to hear the word “treaty” [in the US' statement], we note that a treaty is a ‘legally binding agreement’ and trust that the USA will work to agree a treaty in 2013.”
Treaty negotiations: End stages of “marathon”
In their opening statements, some delegates raised their concerns on the draft text’s level of maturity, as the current document still contains bracketed text and alternatives on which WIPO members have yet to reach consensus.
The EU, for one, “considers that it is necessary to find an agreement on some remaining key issues before a successful diplomatic conference takes place.” The EU specifically highlighted the lack of consensus on provisions concerning technological protection measures and cross border exchange of accessible format copies as topics that should be resolved ahead of the June conference.
The US backed the EU’s position, supporting “a final review to ensure that in our assessment we are all in a position for a successful diplomatic conference next summer.”
On the other hand, many delegations - including developed countries such as Switzerland - argued that no conditions should be put on the convening of the conference, despite the outstanding nature of some issues.
“We are in the last ten minutes of a marathon here,” Morocco said, pressing members to move forward with a sense of urgency in the months ahead. “We can show that we can be flexible and that we’re not going to tie the convening of this conference to conditionalities.”
Rightsholder organisations groups similarly welcomed the decision to hold the June conference. “It is a very good decision that took surprisingly long time to elaborate,” Carlo Scollo Lavizzari of the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM) said. “But [the slow process] reflects the fact that some work is needed to get this into shape and it will still be an intense period between now and June.”
The SCCR will meet in a five-day extraordinary session in February to clear up some of the areas of disagreement in the current draft text. The Assembly also agreed to set up a preparatory committee to settle the modalities of the diplomatic conference and establish whether more work is needed to ensure the conference’s success.
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