Disagreement Persists As WIPO Negotiations For An Accessibility Treaty Move Forward

Disagreement Persists As WIPO Negotiations For An Accessibility Treaty Move Forward

Andrew Baker is a LLB/BCL candidate at McGill University Faculty of Law.

WIPO members have recently met to discuss a potential treaty for the disabled that would create minimum exceptions in copyright laws to facilitate access to copyrighted works by persons who are disabled, and permit the sharing of accessible works across borders.

Advocates for the disabled, such as the European Blind Union (EBU), have argued that blind and partially sighted people are denied full participation in education, employment, and culture by the failure of copyright law to create exceptions for the creation and distribution of accessible formats.  Many developed countries have exceptions in place in their domestic copyright laws to address these concerns.  For example, in Canada, updated provisions were considered in Bill C-32.  Nevertheless, the production and distribution of accessible print materials has remained low, particularly in developing nations, prompting several proposals for a WIPO treaty that would create binding exceptions in law.

At present, several nations, including the US and the European Commission, remain opposed to a treaty and support only soft law solutions and a non-binding recommendation.  Despite the EU’s stance, the European Parliament has recently called on the Commission to pursue a treaty solution highlighting the disagreement that exists over the issue.   Pressure has also been mounting from advocacy groups, such as the European Blind Union, who remain committed to a treaty.  See here for IPOsgoode’s past coverage regarding the EBU and EU Parliament’s support for a treaty solution.

Despite the point of disagreement over a treaty, the recent round of WIPO negotiations seems to demonstrate some progress on the issue.  A cross-regional group of member states, including the US, have put forward a document outlining shared viewpoints which could form the basis of a future international legal instrument.  This “consensus document” was submitted to WIPO as a formal proposal for a legal instrument.  Nevertheless, it appears that substantial disagreement persists as member states continue to adhere to their original positions regarding the nature of any future legal instrument with the US and EU remaining opposed to any form of binding treaty.

Despite the disagreement, the European Blind Union has noted that the negotiations have, “Made great progress towards a law to improve access to books for blind and other print disabled people.”  The EBU also thanked the EU Commission for its help in, “Draft[ing] the text and in its desire to consult the European Blind Union on the substance of that text,” while reiterating its commitment to a binding treaty and reminding the Commission that the EU Parliament also advocates for a treaty.

Despite the common ground struck at this round of negotiations, the form of any future legal instrument remains unclear.  A finalized draft document and further negotiations on how exactly any proposal will become law are expected in November 2011.