Blindfolded girl reading book

A New European Directive’s About to Hit. Let’s make Sure It Lands Right

In October, an important global agreement that could spell big benefits for European and UK blind or impaired vision book lovers. Accessibility expert and UKAAF board member, Michael Lewington explains why this matters to print impaired people.

This UN agreement aims to improve access to published works for persons who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled. This presents an unprecedented opportunity for access to printed works for this community. ‘The Marrakesh Treaty’, as it tends to be referenced, achieves this through international harmonisation of copyright exceptions, allowing the creation and supply of accessible format versions of copyright works, under certain conditions, without infringing copyright.

The original treaty was signed back in 2013, and it’s going to be implemented across the EU on 12 October. Our government launched a public consultation, back in May this year to seek views on how the UK should approach the implementation of the EU’s Regulation and Directive that executes the Treaty in Europe, and the Intellectual Property Office is currently analysing the feedback that was sent in [https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/705158/marrakesh-treaty.pdf].

Why we need it

All sound a bit obscure and legal? Well, it isn’t – as while this is no GDPR, Marrakesh is still very significant legislation if you are involved in creating and lending content. For the first time we’ll have an international legal framework that allows the making and distribution of accessible format copies for people with print disabilities, and the sharing of accessible books across national borders.

So it’s going to be extremely important that the UK implementation of Marrakesh does not discriminate between people with different types of disability. The UK may choose to implement things in different ways to other parts of the EU, as is often the case with Directives. For example, it is unlikely, but not confirmed, that the UK will not include a compensation clause for accessible works, while other European countries are expected to include such a clause in their legislation. This would potentially place a barrier in terms of print-impaired people accessing a work.

Accessibility campaigners would really like to see an avoidance of any kind of compensation scheme and there are other open questions in terms of how the Treaty will end up on our statute books. However, thanks to Marrakesh, all this is actually a very significant step forward, as it will allow beneficiaries greater access to copyright works. It is also to be welcomed – and supported – that the implementation of the Treaty will allow the distribution or making available an accessible format copy by an authorised entity to a beneficiary person or another authorised entity in a country that have ratified the Treaty.

It’s also, to be frank, long overdue. When member states of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) drew up the Treaty, they committed to removing legal barriers to accessing books and other reading material for people who are blind, are partially sighted or have other print disabilities, such as dyslexia. By doing this, they opened the way to dealing with a key cause of the book famine – the fact that less than 7% of published books are made available globally in accessible formats, such as Braille, audio and large print, and digital DAISY formats.

By removing legal barriers to making and sharing accessible format works, Marrakesh immediately increases the amount of reading material available to print disabled readers. Producing an accessible work is time consuming and expensive, and organisations in different countries often produce the same work in the same accessible format; Marrakesh will allow greater cooperation and the sharing of accessible works, and so result in more works being available, which will benefit print-impaired people across the world. To take just one example: creating a Braille-accessible work is expensive, but under the Treaty we would expect to be able to share Braille electronic files.

Marrakesh will also make a significant difference in terms of facilitating cross-border access to published works for people with print disabilities. This is important in the context of us leaving the EU next March, and we need to ratify the Treaty after Brexit as soon as possible to ensure people with print disabilities in the UK continue to get the access to obtain the kind of content the UN says they are entitled to. At the same time, many countries do not have significant accessible libraries, and to deny them access to our extensive catalogues would be a retrograde step, and a blow to print-impaired people.

So the next few weeks are going to be really interesting as we await details on just what the Treaty will look like when it finally gets implemented in the UK. Let’s hope the government gets this one right – as RNIB reminds us that there are nearly two million British people with some sort of sight impairment right now, and every day 250 people start to lose their sight in the UK.

Ultimately, that’s why Marrakesh matters – it could really help you, me, or our families.

Mike Lewington

The author is Mike Lewington,  Chief Executive of Calibre Audio Library, a UK charity that provides a subscription free service of over 10,500 unabridged audio books for adults and children with sight problems, dyslexia or other disabilities who cannot read print

 He is also a board member of UKAAF.

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