In the land of the morally blind, the blind lead the way

In the land of the morally blind, the blind lead the way

Earlier this year, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) agreed to hold a special session of its Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) to organise a diplomatic conference later in the year in Marrakesh that would discuss a possible Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print DisabilitiesMarrakesh Treaty to Improve Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print DIsabled (the Marrakesh Treaty). The date was set for the last week of June 2013. After a long process,  and quite a lot of opposition from some copyright industries, the final text was approved.

This treaty is unique for a large variety of reasons. It is the first WIPO treaty for a while. It is also the very first treaty that does not follow a maximalist agenda, that is, a treaty that crates more rights for owners, but it is actually a treaty that will create more freedoms for consumers.

How is this marvellous development even possible?

For many years, WIPO was usually criticised as nothing more than a mouthpiece for rights holders, beholden by a maximalist agenda that benefited only U.S. interests in the pharmaceutical, music and film industries.  Various treaties speedily passed in the 90s seemed to corroborate this image. However, during the first decade of the 21st century something strange started to happen. Developing countries found their voice, and some of them did not like to be told what to do any more. Furthermore, in the past WIPO relied heavily on member-state contributions, most of which came from the usual sources. However, WIPO began to provide useful services that gave it financial independence, such as the Patent Cooperation Treaty and the domain name dispute resolution system. This has allowed WIPO to be more open to the changing realities in international IP.

These changes may have been lost on some people, but the signs have been there. For a while now WIPO has been inviting civil society groups to many meetings; previously shunned ideas like open source software and Creative Commons were often openly discussed in meetings, and Yours Truly was invited to many meetings to present on all sort of “openness” topics. I will grant that this could be seen as an indictment on my own style; I am not a fiery individual such as [insert name of inspiring speaker here]. But I think that there is something more happening. The smart people at WIPO saw that the wind had changed, and they acted accordingly years ago. The rest of the organisation just caught up.

The really good news is that the process leading towards change has finally produced a text that will be implemented into an agreement that will require member states to change copyright legislation so that a new provision will be added that will allow visually impaired people access to printed works in a format they can read.

Yes, it will now be legal for a blind person to take a work and translate it into a format in which she can read it. I know this is an unforgivable simplification of the Treaty, but hey, we have been hearing some prime-time post-digestive bovine refuse about market failures, future business models, and damages to existing industries throughout the process. I will hopefully be forgiven for a bit of flowery language.

We will talk more of the treaty once it has been published in its final form. Until then, let us bask in the knowledge that things appear to be changing. Nowadays, it is easy to fall into the cynicism spiral. Nothing works, all politicians are corrupt, the system is broken, they are all spying on us… you know the drill. But sometimes we get a pleasant surprise. Maybe the system can work. Sometimes international organisations deliver good treaties. Sometimes courts get things right. Sometimes legislators inspire people. Sometimes leaders still lead. It is in days like these that I become a dewy-eyed optimist again.

We really should congratulate KEI for the incredible effort on bringing this issue to the mainstream. I doubt that this treaty would have been passed without the hard work from people like Thiru Balasubramaniam and James Love. The coverage from IP Watch should also be applauded.

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