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Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Marrakesh Treaty

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing yesterday on the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act (S. 2559). If passed, the legislation would make available an additional 350,000 accessible books for people with print disabilities living in the United States, according to Manisha Singh, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs at the U.S. State Department.

In her testimony, Singh noted the extensive preparatory work that went into crafting the Marrakesh Treaty, an international copyright exception that would allow authorized entities (including libraries) to make accessible copies of works and distribute them across international borders.

The Marrakesh Treaty was signed by member countries of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in June 2013 at an international negotiation conference held in Marrakesh. Scott LaBarre, counsel for the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) recounted that, at the time, there were 37 issues with the draft treaty that had not yet been worked out among the stakeholders including publishers, librarians, and the beneficiaries of the treaty, people with print disabilities around the world. When nearly all hope was lost—because there was deep opposition to the treaty—the King of Morocco showed up and said that he would close the airports if the players had not reached consensus. The subtle threat worked. Since that time, sustained commitment from the stakeholders finally led to the introduction of the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act.

Jonathan Band spoke on behalf of the Library Copyright Alliance (LCA), a coalition consisting of ALA, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). In his testimony, Band explained: “The Marrakesh Treaty creates a system that allows the cross-border exchange of accessible format copies between countries that have joined the Treaty… With digital formats such as renewable braille or audio books, American with print disabilities would be able to access foreign books within minutes of requesting them.”

In their opening statements, Senator Cardin (D-Maryland) applauded the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) which is headquartered in Baltimore. He called their work a “constructive force promoting the quality of life.” Cardin noted the human rights importance of the treaty, praising the United States as a model for the rest of the world. He noted that the impact on the United States was obvious but by ratifying the treaty we would motivate other countries to ratify.

Senator Kaine (D-Virginia) read a quote from Susan Paddock, a librarian at the Bayside and Special Services Library, Department of Public Libraries in Virginia Beach said that her library users were voracious readers who often ran out of books to read because of the limited number. Paddock said, “Can you imagine running out of books to read?” Something taken for granted by most people—access to reading materials—so it was a given that the Library Copyright Alliance would support the Marrakesh Treaty for more than 10 years, all told.

Everything was so positive and upbeat, Senator Corker (R-TN), chair of the committee said there was no need “to grill” the panel. The day ended on a very hopeful note that the legislation would be considered by the full Senate soon. Senator Risch (R-ID) said, “do it quickly.”

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Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Washington Office. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books, and other public policy issues. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in media arts from the University of Arizona.

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