The Marrakesh Treaty: Books for All

Forgotten Books

(Photo Credit: Corey Templeton)


Missing Information
Have you ever picked up an exciting book and found that pages are missing or damaged?  Nothing could be more frustrating. Most readers feel the same way when they download a much anticipated book onto a tablet or smartphone, only to find that it is garbled or unreadable.

For blind and print-disabled book lovers, it is even more frustrating to know that a helpful book on a topic of interest exists, but is closed to them because it is not available in accessible format. This is a serious and life-altering issue for the estimated 314 million visually impaired people around the world.  According to the World Health Organization, 90 percent of them live in the Global South.

The Marrakesh Treaty
Now comes word that a Diplomatic Conference of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) hosted by Morocco adopted “the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled” (Marrakesh Treaty) on June 27, 2013.   The treaty’s adoption was timed to coincide with the birthday of political activist, author, and educator Helen Keller.

Ending “Book Deserts”
Once ratified and implemented by states parties, the Marrakesh Treaty will help end “book deserts” around the world, where persons who are blind or who have print disabilities are denied access to the full range of print materials.  The World Blind Union notes that “of the million or so books published each year …, less than 5 per cent are made available in formats accessible to VIPs [Visually-Impaired People].” The treaty allows for easier and more uniform cross-border access to, and sharing of, reading materials in accessible formats such as Braille, large print, and accessible digital files.

Why was such a treaty necessary?  These days, can’t people with print disabilities just download the books and articles they need or want from the internet?

Not so easy.

Barriers to Access
Among the challenges:

  • Not all online reading materials (such as pdfs) are accessible to screen reading software and other assistive technology.  Some materials appear only as unreadable “images” (i.e., photographs of a page, not identifiable words on a page).  Some materials can be converted into readable text with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, but this requires access to the relevant software, equipment, and training.
  • Conversion of books to Braille, large print, audio, or electronic files requires political will, time, and resources that not all international bodies, governments, and private actors have been willing to support, even though the benefits of including millions in human and social development far outweighs the limited costs.
  •  Access to Education and Technology:  Many visually-impaired persons are poor because of discrimination, lack of access to education and employment, and other domestic and international policies.  If they are also members of minority or marginalized communities, they are even more likely to lack effective access to schools, learning materials, and assistive technology.
  • Gender and Disability Discrimination: Girls and women with disabilities experience compounded forms of discrimination and exclusion from access to education in many societies.  Although accessible materials may be available in their home countries, gender stereotypes and violence may limit their effective access to books. (Check out Malala Yousafzai’s extraordinarily moving speech at UN Headquarters on the right to education of women and girls, an end to poverty, and a commitment to nonviolence.)
  • Copyright Restrictions:  Even if a publisher, DPO, or individual has practical access to the appropriate technology, they may fear running afoul of copyright laws if they share accessible books and articles with others who need them.  In some countries, “Limitations and Exceptions” clauses in national copyright laws allow publishers and other providers to increase accessibility, although there are inconsistencies and gaps in coverage.

WIPO describes the problem as follows:

A WIPO survey in 2006 found that fewer than 60 countries have limitations and exceptions clauses in their copyright laws that make special provision for VIPs, for example, for Braille, large print or digitized audio versions1 of copyrighted texts. Furthermore, because copyright law is “territorial”, these exemptions usually do not cover the import or export of works converted into accessible formats, even between countries with similar rules. Organizations in each country must negotiate licenses with the right-holders to exchange special formats across borders, or produce their own materials, a costly undertaking that severely limits access by VIPs to printed works of all kinds.

Spreading the Word
At a recent panel, my Northeastern Law colleague, Brook K. Baker, presented an excellent paper discussing many such issues in “Challenges Facing a Proposed WIPO Treaty for Persons Who are Blind or Print Disabled,” available here. The paper was presented as part of the May 29-June 2, 2013 Law & Society Association meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Maya Sabatello (Columbia University) and yours truly, IntLawGrrl Hope Lewis (Northeastern University School of Law), co-organized the panel on “Law, Society, and Technologies:  A Disability Perspective.”   The panel highlighted the implications of new technologies for persons with disabilities.

In addition to Baker’s discussion of the WIPO Treaty, presenters spoke on the following issues:

  • Michael G. Bennett (Northeastern University School of Law),  “User-centric Design of Nano Tattoos”
  • Hope Lewis (Northeastern University School of Law), “Joining the Revolution: Reflections on Rights to Information and Inclusive Technology”
  • Maya Sabatello (NYU School of Law), “Experimentation with Human Subjects with Mental and Cognitive Disabilities”

Sagit Mor (Faculty of Law, Haifa University) served as moderator/discussant.  Mor and Katharina Heyer (Political Science, University of Hawai’i)  co-chair the Disability Legal Studies Collaborative Research Network (CRN).  A related CRN meeting was also co-sponsored by the American Society of International Law International Disability Rights Interest Group.

What Next for International Disability Rights?
The progressive development of international law recognizing state obligations to respect, protect, promote, and fulfill the human rights of persons with disabilities is proceeding throughout the world among governments and very active civil society movements.  This, despite the shameful failure of the United States Senate to approve ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)  in December 2012.  (See e.g., this essay by the Association of Women with Human Rights in Development, noting the Senate vote and prospects for future ratification.)

CRPD Conference of States Parties
This week, UN diplomats, government representatives, and NGOs are meeting at UN Headquarters in New York for the CRPD Conference of States Parties (COSP), with many “side events” on technology access, violence against women with disabilities, access to justice, multiple forms of discrimination, and other issues.

Governmental supporters, non-governmental advocates, including many Disabled Persons Organizations (DPOs) hail the new Marrakesh Treaty as a crucial step in promoting literacy, basic education, and higher education for all.  The Treaty is open for signature and enters into force three months after the 20th eligible ratification or accession. Let’s hope that both the Marrakesh Treaty and the CRPD will be widely ratified and implemented in good faith.

Heartfelt thanks to my colleague, Brook K. Baker, and to Albert Elia, ’14, Northeastern University School of Law, for his excellent research assistance.

Selected Resources
Accessible Books

  • (U.S.-based site with accessible books and periodicals for readers with print disabilities)
  • DAISY Consortium (Digital Accessible Information System), a nonprofit consortium of libraries and other organizations that uses open source standards to convert text to audio books and articles that can be navigated by the blind and visually-impaired.
  • National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (public access to books and other accessible reading materials from the U.S. Library of Congress)

Information on the Marrakesh Treaty

Information on the CRPD

Civil Society (a handful; there are hundreds of organizations around the world)

Books and Online Commentary

4 thoughts on “The Marrakesh Treaty: Books for All

  1. What an invaluable blog post, Hope. Everyone who cares about education should be aware of the information provided. I’m sending your post to all faculty and staff here at Vermont Law School. With thanks and warm wishes, Stephanie

  2. Pingback: Faculty Post: The Marrakesh Treaty: Books for All | NUSL BLOGS

  3. Pingback: The Marrakesh Treaty: Books for All | Derecho Global

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