I’ll participate on a conference call regarding the World Intellectual Property Organization Treaty (WIPO) for people with print disabilities next week. As usual, there will be 4-5 representatives from the associations for the blind and US libraries that support the treaty, which would allow greater access to reading material for people who are blind or have other print disabilities. All of the others on the call will be opposed to the treaty, maybe 15-20 representatives of the publishing and motion picture industries. I can understand why the publishing industry would be interested in the treaty since we are talking about an exception to copyright for print materials. They hold copyrights for print materials. But why Hollywood? Why do they have a bone to pick when their economic interests focus on copyright holdings — motion pictures and other media — which were excluded from the treaty altogether, hence the purposeful name — Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities?
The treaty would create a copyright exception for authorized entities (non-profit organizations like the National Library for the Blind, Bookshare, and libraries) to make accessible copies of print materials for the print disabled on request. In addition, the treaty would allow nations to share or make accessible copies for the print disabled in other countries — many who have almost no access to reading materials. This is a beneficial policy proposal that includes many already negotiated caveats that would protect the interests of rights holders.
Over the last five years, this treaty has been moving forward in the negotiation process with stops and starts along the way, concessions here and language changes there, but that is expected path of international treaty development. In February of this year, after a weeklong negotiation session, WIPO member nations agreed it was the time for a diplomatic conference, one of the final steps in enacting the treaty. Then (“lights, camera, action”) comes the motion picture industry who has aggressively lobbied the state department and government officials, calling for opposition to the treaty. The industry has gone so far as to contact every foreign embassy to urge their nations’ WIPO representatives to oppose the treaty. Hollywood has usurped the role of the US delegation to WIPO by clamoring to higher echelons of the federal government.
Why the opposition? Chris Dodd, former U.S. Senator and now chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), explained that the treaty has become “a vehicle to weaken copyright and ultimately undermine the global marketplace.” Holy crap! Leave it to the MPAA to come up with some kind of “shock and awe” statement to freak people out. The MPAA still supports a treaty for the print disabled, but it must not weaken copyright protection. Additional provisions to the treaty must be added to make the treaty as weak and as difficult to implement as possible.
The planned diplomatic conference to finalize the treaty will continue to take place this June, but many are not optimistic. Now with United States government support for maximalist copyright on behalf of the motion picture industry (from an earlier, relatively balanced approach to the treaty), this meaningful treaty –to help visually impaired people who have the audacity to hope, the audacity to read –has becomes meaningless.