Those watching early television reruns may have come across a show called The Twilight Zone. A “teleplay” made during the “golden age” of television, this series was based on strong compelling stories and starred then unknown actors of the time. But The Twilight Zone was special. It had a spooky quality with particularly twisted and ironic endings. No wonder – it was created by Rod Serling.
There’s one episode that I am sure many librarians and people who love to read can relate to. It was called “Time Enough at Last” and aired in November 1959, starring Burgess Meredith (who also played the Penguin in the Batman series). Meredith’s character, Henry Bemis bemoans the fact that he doesn’t have enough time to read (something I myself am always complaining about). No time in the day to read. But Henry is an extreme case. Henry is obsessed, and like a drug addict, he has to get his “reading fix” even though his addiction threatens his marriage and his livelihood. Like an alcoholic burying bottles of vodka in the backyard garden, Henry hides books under furniture cushions so he can secretly read whenever there is time.
Compare Henry’s predicament to the visually impaired. For people with print disabilities, time to read is not the issue. The desire to read is just as powerful, but woefully few accessible copies exist to quench their thirst for books. ALA, the association best associated with reading and equitable access to information, is trying to advance an international treaty that would make it easier to make accessible copies for the visually impaired and make it legal to share accessible copies with other nations.
The idea is to reduce duplication of effort – creating an accessible copy (like Braille, audio recordings, or accessible digital files) after a book has been published is tremendously expensive. Many countries cannot possibly afford making accessible copies, plus the act of making an accessible copy is a violation of their copyright laws. If we could share our accessible copies, the diversity of content available to the blind would increase dramatically. In the United States, we could also gain access to copies in languages other than English, meeting the needs of the blind for whom English is a second language.
There is no downside to this treaty. And yet, rights holders are opposed. The publishing industry does not want to sell accessible copies in the market, BUT they don’t want anyone else to facilitate the need. The motion picture industry says it supports a treaty, but only one that is weakened by additional legal conditions reducing the number of accessible books that can be made. And the patent industry! What is their problem? Surely it will not hurt the bottom line of corporations like Exxon or General Electric. Their opposition is based on power and control, in claiming complete “ownership” of intellectual property [sic], to make copyright and patent law as all-encompassing as possible. They argue if we let blind people have an exception to copyright law, then all hell will break lose. Next the libraries will want an exception, and then there will be the teachers, and people with hearing impairments and the list goes on. A scenario described by the Intellectual Property [sic] Owners Association as a threat that will “upset the fundamental balance on which our US and global IP system is based.” Really? That will happen if blind people have more books to read?
Yes, this is clearly hyperbolic “lobbyist speak,” but it is the kind of talk that the Obama Administration seems to take seriously, at least lately now, that the copyright industries have started to whine. We, on the other hand, are not being hyperbolic. We are advancing this treaty because there is clear evidence that the blind are not being served by our copyright system. The advancement of knowledge and learning, the purpose of the copyright law, is not happening for the blind.
You can help by signing a petition in support of the treaty. Do it now, because on June 16th final treaty negotiations begin. Librarians cannot in good conscience be untroubled by this issue. We can turn the tide and ensure access to information for all by making our voices heard.
Now back to poor Henry Bemis. You can watch the TV episode and see how it ends. I don’t want to ruin the ending. Hopefully, you will not turn your back on the blind.
 “Intellectual property” is a misnomer. Rights holders do not own property, they hold exclusive right.