Ninety percent of the world’s blind and visually impaired people live in developing countries, where there is little access to published work in braille and other accessible formats. Since 2008, the World Intellectual Property Organization has been discussing a treaty that would require countries to allow copyrighted works to be converted into accessible formats without additional permission from the copyright holder. But publishers worry about the precedent such a treaty would set, concerns that led the U.S. and the European Union to block the latest round of negotiations.


  • James Love Director, Knowledge Ecology International
  • Allan Adler Vice President, Legal and Government Affairs, Association of American Publishers
  • Kim Charlson First Vice President, American Council of the Blind; Supervisor, Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library

Knowledge Ecology International Videos

Chris Friend of the World Blind Union discusses what he would ask from President Barack Obama. At the time of this interview, the White House had not agreed to a diplomatic conference on a treaty for copyright exceptions for persons who are blind or have other disabilities:

Alan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs for the Association of American Publishers, on why the association is opposing a treaty:

Maryanne Diamond, president of World Blind Union, on the diplomatic treaty for blind and disabled users:

David Hammerstein of the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue talks about the very tough negotiations on exceptions for persons with disabilities:


  • 13:28:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDINinety percent of the world's visually impaired and blind live in developing countries and just 1 percent of published works are accessible to them. Some call it a book famine. Disability advocates are pushing a treaty that would make an exception to copyright rules for converting published work into accessible formats like Braille or audio books without having to get permission from the copyright holder. Publishers and copyright holders however worry about the precedent this might set. The most recent round of negotiations took place in Geneva in late July. Once again talks ended with no treaty.

  • 13:29:24

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this in our studio is Jamie Love. He is the director of the Knowledge Ecology Institute, an organization that works on human rights issues related to intellectual policy. Jamie Love, thank you for joining us. Also in studio with us is Allan Adler. He is the vice-president for Legal and Government Affairs for the Association of American Publishers. Allan Adler, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:48

    MR. ALLAN ADLERMy pleasure.

  • 13:29:49

    NNAMDIIn a previous life, Allan was a lawyer with the ACLU, is that correct?

  • 13:29:52

    ADLERThat's correct.

  • 13:29:53

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Boston is Kim Charlson, the American Council of the Blind's first vice-president. She is also a supervisor at the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library in Boston, Kim Charlson, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:30:07

    MS. KIM CHARLSONThank you so much, Kojo.

  • 13:30:08

    NNAMDII'll start with you, Kim Charlson. First, we can -- can we lay out the issues? Who lacks access to accessible books around the world?

  • 13:30:17

    CHARLSONThe accessibility to books, as you can imagine, hundreds of thousands of books are published in print every year just in the United States, let alone all around the world. And as you said, such a small percentage of that number are available in an accessible format. Now what is an accessible format? That could be a Braille title. It can be an audio book. It can also be an electronic book. And those are the primary formats that we talk about when we talk about accessible formats. Sometimes we also have large print materials.

  • 13:30:55

    CHARLSONSo the treaty really is an effort to try to get publishers to work with nonprofits and government organizations to make sure that more of the intellectual resources in books that are published around the world can be available to the blind and visually impaired all around the world. We're quite fortunate in the United States because we have the library of Congress and the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library and other libraries all across the country. But in other nations they don't have that kind of government support to help produce and make books accessible by actually producing them.

  • 13:31:33

    CHARLSONWe can't go to a bookstore or and buy accessible books to have library services for people. Yes, there are commercial audio books and -- but that's a very small percentage of what's out there and available. And when you start to look at educational resources the numbers are even smaller and harder to get access to. So we're talking about access to education and access to reading and access to information all throughout the world.

  • 13:32:03

    NNAMDIJamie Love, why is the current licensing system for audio books and other accessible formats such a hurdle in developing nations?

  • 13:32:12

    MR. JAMES LOVEWell, it really isn't just a question of licensing. Most countries worldwide that provide books for people who are blind rely a lot on national copyright exceptions. And it's expensive, as Kim mentioned, to produce high quality books. And there's a variety of different formats. And one of the problems is the fact that the national exceptions don't permit the cross border sharing in a lot of countries.

  • 13:32:38

    MR. JAMES LOVELike in the United States, the beneficiaries have to be U.S. residents. And so we don't share our books for the blind with blind people in Canada. We don't share them with blind people in Kenya or in India or in England or any other country. So that just leads to not only a lot of excess costs but it also means the countries that are poor or small economies, they just have fewer resources and they have much smaller libraries.

  • 13:32:59

    MR. JAMES LOVEI was in a library, for example, in Uruguay and I looked in the room and they had like 3,000 books for the entire country. That was the entire library for the blind in Uruguay. Across the river in Argentina -- they had much larger collections in Argentina but they didn't share across borders. And I asked them how many they produced a year and it was about one book a week. They had a microphone and a volunteer. They read a book into a microphone and they do about one a week and that was the entire library if you were blind in Uruguay.

  • 13:33:28

    MR. JAMES LOVESo what the treaty would do was allow Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, other Latin American countries to share their collections, us to share our collections with other English-speaking people, etcetera so that you'd have essentially global access to these works.

  • 13:33:43

    NNAMDIAllan Adler, before we talk anymore about the treaty proposal that was mentioned, tell us about the group that you represent or the groups?

  • 13:33:50

    ADLERWell, the Association of American Publishers is the national trade association for U.S. book publishers and journal publishers. It's a highly sectoral group of people. They're really in different businesses, different industries in the sense that we represent trade book publishers who are responsible for popular works of fiction and nonfiction. We represent educational publishers, both at the kindergarten through 12 grade level and higher education. We also represent professional and scholarly publishers who publish a variety of works in the form of journals, monographs and other formats.

  • 13:34:27

    ADLERAnd basically what they have in common is that they are all confronted with the challenges presented by digital technology. And what that means with respect to the movements that have risen from those challenges to challenge copyright itself because copyright is one of the main pillars upon which any publishing enterprise is going to stand. If you don't have intellectual property rights to particular works than basically you have nothing to publish.

  • 13:34:57

    ADLERSo the question of whether or not we can accommodate the needs of individuals with print disabilities on an international level and do so in a way that doesn't pose threats to copyright, and particularly when you're dealing with works in digital formats, is one of the chief underlying issues.

  • 13:35:14

    NNAMDIThe global market is a big one for U.S. publishers. Can you talk a little bit about that and about some of the issues in that global market?

  • 13:35:21

    ADLERYes, the global market -- people estimate that the U.S. publishing industry is about a $26 billion industry altogether. But you have to consider that it also is affected by things like differences in language and the extent to which works produced initially for an American audience or an otherwise English-speaking audience find their way into translation in a variety of different languages. In some areas of the world it's very difficult to do that because there's a relatively small population that speaks a particular language, or can read a particular language.

  • 13:35:58

    ADLERThis is true, for example, in the Scandinavian countries or if you consider works in Japan. But the industry does try to export a good deal of its products and there seems to be a demand in other countries for access to American-produced works. Often however we have some difficulties with the governments of foreign countries in being able to market those works within their borders. So there are a number of issues that arise that we have to deal with with respect to segmentation in the global marketplace that allows these books to find a home in some countries but not necessarily in all.

  • 13:36:35

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about access to copyrighted works for the blind and visually impaired and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think publishers should relax copyright laws in order to make works accessible to the blind and visually impaired? 800-433-8850. You can send us email to Jamie Love, your organization has been involved in the push for a treaty, as you mentioned, to change copyright rules. How did this all come about?

  • 13:37:05

    LOVEWell, the issue of the problem of countries being able to share their works across borders when the works are -- the copies are created under exceptions in national laws has been a problem for a long time. It was recommended in 1985 that there be a treaty in this area but nothing was really done. And we were attending a lot of meetings at the -- the UN has a specialized body on intellectual property called the World Intellectual Property Organization. And they have a copyright committee that meets in Geneva.

  • 13:37:34

    LOVESo the World Blind Union was making these periodic presentations during this committee describing this problem. And we approached the World Blind Union in 2008 and we suggested that we collaborate with them to see if it was possible to actually draft a treaty. And the World Blind Union actually did and in that year they produced a model treaty that they presented to the committee in 2008. And by 2009 it was submitted as a formal country proposal by a group of Latin American countries.

  • 13:38:02

    LOVEAnd since then it's become a very big negotiation. At the UN we work very closely with them. Stevie Wonder actually appeared in 2010 at the general assembly of this UN body asking for progress on this issue. There's been, I think, a shift. Now the European parliament has endorsed the idea of a treaty here, the European Commission, Australia, the entire African group, the entire Asia group, the entire Latin American group and Caribbean group is now supporting the treaty. And several northern European countries, the UK, have been quite favorable to this.

  • 13:38:36

    LOVESo the U.S. is being kind of isolated as blocking action on this point. The Obama Administration, which has really been a surprise to us, has been holding out to say that this should be some kind of a weak soft law recommendation and not a treaty. And that's been the primary stumbling block we've had at this point.

  • 13:38:54

    NNAMDIKim Charlson, exactly what would this treaty do? It's been under discussion, as Jamie has pointed out, since 2008.

  • 13:39:01

    CHARLSONWell, as Jamie said, it would open up the opportunity to share accessible format materials across borders. What a lot of people don't realize is that there's a tremendous benefit to the United States. We would not just be sharing our resources, but...

  • 13:39:19

    NNAMDIWell, in more specific terms, the proposed treaty, it is my understanding, would make it obligatory for countries to allow copyright, printed and published works to be converted into an accessible format for people with visual and reading disabilities and, as you pointed out, shared around the world without seeking permission from the copyright holder. Is that correct?

  • 13:39:39

    CHARLSONThat's basically correct and that is pretty much the law that we have in the United States relating to accessible format material. The one proviso that I think we need to be real clear on is that the materials that are produced in a specialized format, that means they're not in a format that you could go out and get access to. You know, they're Braille, they're audio but the audio doesn't play necessarily in a commercial format. The electronic books are protected so that they need to be read with a certain piece of software.

  • 13:40:14

    CHARLSONIt isn't necessarily that they're just wide open and out there. We're very cognizant of the fact that we need to safeguard the rights of publishers, but yet at the same time, we expect that publishers will allow the organizations around the world that are trying to open up and make more materials accessible, that they will allow us to do that, and that they will participate in that process but providing accessible materials.

  • 13:40:40

    CHARLSONAs a librarian now, I can work with publishers and get, you know, from them, electronic files, but the process is incredibly tedious. It can take me as long as six weeks to get access to one electronic book for one individual who needs to read that book for a course.

  • 13:41:00

    NNAMDIAllan Adler, it is my understanding that the United States and the European Union agree principle to disability access, but are not committed to a legally binding global treaty, why not?

  • 13:41:13

    ADLERWell, there's a lot of discussion about the form that this international agreement would take, and there's a good deal of disagreement about the implications of different forms it could take. For example, there are some who view a recommendation from the WIPO to which...

  • 13:41:32

    NNAMDIThe WIPO is the World Intellectual Property Organization.

  • 13:41:35

    ADLERThat's right. And its member states are the ones who convene to consider the crafting and adoption of such instruments. So one of the questions is whether or not the particular form of the instrument that would be adopted is one that its signatory, once they have agreed to it, would be, in fact as you suggested, obligated to go forward and amend their own laws -- national laws, assistant consistent with the terms of the international agreement.

  • 13:42:05

    ADLERThere are some though, who would argue that while a treaty may appear to be the most concrete and perhaps the most forceful statement of these objectives, a treaty is only good if the countries that sign onto it in fact ratify them according to their own domestic processes. For example, in the United States, there has been a number of treaties, including, for example, the law the sea treaty that have been around for 30-some-odd years, and although the United States was part of the group that negotiated, they are not yet a signatory to it because the United States Senate hasn't ratified it.

  • 13:42:42

    ADLERSo the question of having the form is really ultimately subordinate to whether or not the countries who adopt this as part of the convention at WIPO will be willing to follow through in their own domestic political situations by making their own national laws reflect (unintelligible) .

  • 13:43:01

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation. Jamie Love, hold that thought for a second. We'll be gone for just a couple of minutes, but if you'd like to join the conversation, please feel free to call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think it's a dangerous precedent to allow works to be reproduced without copyright permission matter what the circumstance? 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:12

    NNAMDIWe're discussing access to copyrighted works for the blind and visually impaired with Allan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs for the Association of American Publishers. Kim Charlson is the American Council of the Blind's first vice president. She's also a supervisor at the Perkin's Braille and Talking Book Library in Boston. And James -- or Jamie Love is the director of the Knowledge Ecology Institute which works on human rights issues related to intellectual policy. Jamie, you wanted to respond to what Allan Adler said, and even as you do that, could you bring us up-to-date, there was another round of discussion in Geneva three weeks ago, can you tell us what happened with that latest round of talks? But go ahead, please.

  • 13:45:51

    LOVECertainly. First of all, right before we broke you mentioned this idea of would we be creating some new precedent on exceptions. In fact, what the UN body that's looking at this is looking at is our mandatory minimum exceptions which fall short of what the U.S. already has in its own law. For example, the U.S. law covers a broader range of disabilities including deafness for example, which, because of lobbying by the MPAA has been excluded from the definition of the particular initiative.

  • 13:46:23

    NNAMDIAnd the MPAA is the...

  • 13:46:24

    LOVEMotion Picture Association of America.

  • 13:46:26

    NNAMDISo MPAA, okay.

  • 13:46:27

    LOVESo what you have is about 60 countries including really all the high-income countries have fairly robust exceptions for people who are blind or have other disabilities in copyright. It isn't really changing that so much as what it's doing is its -- the primary affect would be to bring developing countries which have not put these exceptions...

  • 13:46:47

    NNAMDIIn line with that.

  • 13:46:47

    LOVEIn line what's already in effect in Europe and the United States and Canada. And the other thing it would do, is it would deal with the cross border thing which is the major problem. Now, when Allan was talking about the treaty thing, and this has been a big issue, in Europe, the European Parliament, and the European Commission are on record in favor of a treaty, but some member states, and they have to coordinate three different groups in the European Commission, such as France and Italy had not yet come on board, so they're trying to resolve that there.

  • 13:47:19

    LOVEBut when it comes to protecting the rights of copyright owners, it's always binding, it's always a treaty. So you have the trade agreement right now and the Transpacific Partnership that has a secret negotiation, a potential binding treaty. You had the ACTA Agreement which was supposed to be a binding trade agreement on enforcement of intellectual property rights. You have the WIPO copyright treaty, the Burn Convention, the trips, all these things are binding agreements. So when it comes to a human rights issue, or the issue of the rights of the public in terms of things, there's never been a treaty that's put them first.

  • 13:47:54

    LOVEThat's what makes it controversial. That's why this is probably taking a lot more work than it should because it sets a precedent that you can have a treaty that actually guarantees the rights of the public in the area of copyright where all the other treaties have guaranteed the rights of the property owners.

  • 13:48:09

    NNAMDIWell, Allan Adler, your organization has been working, making copyrighted work accessible to people with disabilities here in the U.S. for a long time. In fact, there's a copyright exception to make work accessible here in the U.S. What's the difference between that and what this treaty would propose?

  • 13:48:27

    ADLERWell, in fact, you're right. The Association of American Publishers was involved 16 years ago in crafting and supporting enactment of what's call the Chafee Amendment, which is the exception in U.S. copyright law that allows certainty entities that service the needs of individuals with print disabilities to reproduce and distribute accessible copies of works without having to get the permission of the copyright owner or compensate them. What happened here though, is that this issue, while it's important in its own terms, and it should be something that we could all work on together, turned into a wedge for a much broader attack on copyright, and in fact, most of the time of this most recent standing committee meeting at the WIPO, was not spent working on this agreement regarding the needs of individuals with print disabilities, but in fact was spent on proposals for creating very, very broad exceptions to rights of copyright for educational uses.

  • 13:49:29

    NNAMDIExample? Oh, because we did...

  • 13:49:32

    ADLERAnd for uses of copyrighted works by libraries and archival institutions. Now, U.S. law contains certain exceptions that provide for educational use of copyrighted work, again, without permission or compensation to copyright owners. But what we saw in Geneva at this most recent meeting was basically a full-scale assault in which there would be virtually nothing left of a market for educational publications, if in fact the proposals that were offered to create limitations and exceptions on the rights of authors, publishers, and other copyright owners were to be adopted.

  • 13:50:09

    ADLERAnd we see the situation as very different. In the area of people with print disabilities, there is a situation that the market has not been successful in being able to adequately serve their needs. So the additional regulatory approach, whether its domestic or extended to the international arena, is justified in that context. However, when it comes to educational uses of copyrighted works, copyrighted works that are used in instruction at all levels of education, there's a very vibrant market for that, and there are no specific restrictions or inability of people to find available materials that they can use as instructional materials at different levels of education.

  • 13:50:50

    ADLERSo we see the issues as somewhat different, and yet, it was fairly clear at this most recent meeting that the approach to this international agreement for people with print disabilities really was a wedge opening to a much broader attack on copyright.

  • 13:51:05

    NNAMDIWell, here's what I'm hearing, and I'd like to hear both you, Jamie Love, and Kim Charlson on this, because we got an email from Susan that goes straight to the issue. Susan writes "What about educational books? That's a big need around the world, and isn't it important that we share the educational material we have in abundance here?" Jamie Love and Kim Charlson, what I hear Allan Adler saying is that, yes, we do want to share educational material, but there's a market for educational material among the visually impaired and blind, so why cut us out of that market completely?

  • 13:51:39

    LOVEWell, I think the problem that blind and visually impaired people have is it's not much of a market and publishers haven't really been interested in addressing that market, otherwise you would not have had a tradition of United States and every country in Europe and North America, Australia, doing exceptions, because that's been part of….

  • 13:51:58

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt because we don't have a lot of time, and I'd like our audience to begin to understand. Is there a distinction being made between published works in general and educational published works in particular?

  • 13:52:13

    LOVEWell, there is in copyright laws, and the exceptions are considered to be more liberal in education than they are in general. But what Allan was bringing up is the fact that there's an effort in developing countries -- most developing countries have very few exceptions written in their law for copyright, and there was a historical reason. It was kind of almost a neocolonial outcome of being colonies and then having kind of this these technical agencies would make sure they protected the rights, but they didn't really drive the exceptions and the law.

  • 13:52:45

    LOVESo you would find the really robust exceptions in America for education and for reporters, for journalists, for fair use that benefits filmmakers and things like that, you see less of that. Now, in the developing countries, they just didn't enforce intellectual property rights in some countries, and so that -- it didn't make any difference what the law was. Nowadays things are changing so there's pressure on developing countries to have stricter enforcement of copyright, and as a consequence, they're trying to modify their laws so they can actually move from having, you know, basically unenforced laws that were not very good to laws that are more reasonable given their level of development and income, but where they have higher degrees of enforcement and lawful activity.

  • 13:53:24

    LOVESo that's a different debate. Now, we've tried to separate the thing about blind people and other disabilities from this broader debate, because I don't think I benefits anyone to mix the two issues up. I think they're very different, and the reality is, there's all kinds of proposals in Geneva, not just for education things, but broadcasters want new treaties that'd move things in the opposite direction, and there's always a lot of proposals people have, and they're all important debates, but we would like them be completely separate from this debate about people who are blind or have other -- people are blind and have a lot of other disabilities are often very vulnerable populations, and they need to be protected.

  • 13:54:02

    CHARLSONAnd Kojo, let me add to that that you're talking about a population, it's a very, very small fraction of the overall population. I just don't -- there's not a market share for publishers within the blind and visually impaired international market. It just doesn't exist. What we need to do is make opportunities available for people to have access to information, access to reading, access to education, and that needs to be done through a treaty to open up these countries to allow this kind of information sharing for blind and visually-impaired people, and that's really what the blindness community in the United States is...

  • 13:54:45

    NNAMDIAllow me to get a test...

  • 13:54:46

    CHARLSON...part of the World Blind Union is trying to get access to.

  • 13:54:48

    NNAMDILet me get a testimonial if you will from Fred in New Carrollton, Md. Fred, you're on the air. You only have about a minute, but go ahead, please.

  • 13:54:55

    FREDOkay, Kojo. Thank you. I just returned from Sierra Leon and this topic you're discussing is very, very relevant to what happens there because I came across a number of college and school students who have very serious problems accessing any material textbooks or other relevant materials. And I think that it is very important that something is done by the international community to help alleviate this kind of problem that people face...

  • 13:55:39


  • 13:55:39 the -- especially in the third world.

  • 13:55:41

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Fred. Allan Adler?

  • 13:55:44

    ADLERWell, you know, when you hear people talk about difficulties in obtaining instructional materials for educational uses, you have to ask yourself why is that so in some countries? And it's because the governments in those countries have done very little to encourage the development of local publishing enterprises. In fact, in many instances, the governments suppress local publishing, because it presents either a political threat to the government that is running the country, or because they want certain educational values.

  • 13:56:14

    NNAMDII may be completely wrong because I'm not as familiar with this issue as you are, but why does the word China keep popping into my head?

  • 13:56:21

    ADLERWell, there are many countries like that. I mean, the Chinese who would love to have broad copyright exceptions to acquire many of U.S. cultural products at the same time would not allow many of U.S.'s cultural products to be available to their people because they would view those things as being seditious, as challenging government values, challenging government authority.

  • 13:56:42

    NNAMDIIs that one of the stumbling blocks here, Jamie Love, why would you like to be separated for people who are blind, visually impaired, or have other disabilities from the broad general discussion?

  • 13:56:53

    LOVEWell, I mean, all these discussions are taking place and we're actually -- Allan and I are both involved in all these different discussions. I mean, and I think they deserve (unintelligible) . None of these issues benefit from being tied to everything else at the same time, and bringing China in is not particularly helpful. China...

  • 13:57:10

    NNAMDISorry I brought it up.

  • 13:57:11

    LOVENo. But China is an example of a country where it's a language that's spoken primarily in -- I mean, they would benefit less from this than a country like in Latin America where you have 20 countries that speak Spanish, and they're not sharing works with each other, or you have, you know, 60 countries where English is an official language, or have the Europeans read English, and they're not sharing those works.

  • 13:57:35

    LOVESo actually it's more about I would say the primary beneficiaries are people that read English and the people that read Spanish, and to some extent French. I mean, it's...

  • 13:57:44

    NNAMDIIndeed. We got an email from Robert who said, "My aunt is legally blind and speaks only Spanish. She says she can never find what she wants in accessible format. She doesn't read Braille." We're almost out of time, but what's the next step in this process?

  • 13:57:56

    LOVEWell, the next step is there will be -- because ...

  • 13:58:00

    NNAMDIYou got ten seconds.

  • 13:58:02

    LOVEIn December they'll decide whether there's going to be a treaty because the Obama administration put the decision off after the election, and the United States Patent and Trademark office, David Kappos, is the lead agency for the United States on this.

  • 13:58:16

    NNAMDIJamie Love, Kim Charlson, Allan Adler, thank you all for joining us. This is a conversation that we will obviously be continuing as it develops, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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