Copyright on books at issue for the blind

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NEW DELHI -- Advocates of visual disability groups from across the world urged the United States to get off the fence at global copyright negotiations in Geneva this week, and actively back a strong treaty that allows blind people access to copyrighted published works.

The proposed treaty would make it obligatory for countries to allow copyrighted printed and published works to be converted into an accessible format for people with visual and reading disabilities and shared around the world without seeking permission from the copyright holder.

The United States and European Union agree in principle to disability access but are not committed to a legally binding global treaty. Disability advocates at the ongoing negotiations of the United Nations agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization, say that if the U.S. backs their demand, the European Union will automatically fall in line.

"The American publishers industry, comprising of the publishing giants, does not want it to be a treaty and only want it to be a set of recommendations," said James Love, director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group Knowledge Ecology International that is part of the campaign in Geneva. "It all boils down to the American government's will. Do you or do you not believe that the American libraries should cooperate with blind people in other parts of the world?"

But American publishers say they are opposed to a treaty that has the potential to set the stage for similar exceptions and limitations to the rights of copyright owners in other areas as well.

"We are not against allowing an exception for people with print disabilities, but our concern is that a treaty will establish a precedent that they will then apply in the other areas like educational uses, library and archives," said Allan Adler, vice president of legal and government affairs at the Association of American Publishers. "Generally, international treaties establish the minimal rights of the copyright owners first, and not the limitations and exceptions to those rights."

The U.S. government is advocating a softer, nonbinding alternative to a legally binding treaty, delegates in Geneva say.

But many disability rights groups say mere recommendations place no obligations and would be toothless.

Time is running out, advocates of the treaty say. The negotiations began as early as 1981 but have now reached a conclusive stage that could result in a treaty by next year. The Geneva discussions end on Wednesday, and lack of consensus this week would put off the negotiations to 2014. By then, most negotiators would have moved on, treaty supporters say.

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