National Federation of the Blind, MPAA join forces to back book treaty

The National Federation of the Blind and the Motion Picture Association of America announced Thursday that they are working together to support a treaty that would allow published works that have been converted to formats more accessible to blind and visually impaired users — such as audiobooks — to be distributed around the globe.

“There is a book famine that affects the worldwide blind community,” said Chris Danielsen, the director of public affairs for the National Federation for the Blind, in an interview with The Washington Post.

Copyright restrictions have made it difficult for the blind community to gain access to published works, Danielsen said, because even when someone has put the considerable work it takes into converting a book into a format that a blind person can use they're very limited in the way they can distribute the adapted work.

While 57 countries, including the United States, have already made some exceptions in their copyright laws to make it easier to convert texts into formats for the blind, it’s illegal to distribute these texts across borders.

That, Danielsen said, means that there’s a lot of duplication. Every English-speaking country, for example, has to make its own copies of the same book, even though the texts themselves are nearly identical.

The proposed treaty was crafted as a result of collaboration from blind advocates around the world and the World Intellectual Property Organization and would allow more accessible materials to be sent across national boundaries. The treaty is set to be discussed at a conference in Morocco next month.

The proposal has drawn some criticism from corporations that worry that the exceptions may make it easier for a general audience to violate copyright or steal intellectual property. But the MPAA and NFB said in a statement Thursday that this kind of abuse can be avoided if the treaty is written narrowly enough.

The proposal, the groups said, should “avoid addressing extraneous copyright issues” that aren’t directly related to making published works more accessible to blind people

The issue is one of great importance to the blind community around the world, said Danielsen. Only about five percent of books are converted into formats that the blind community can use, he said. That dearth of material not only keeps blind people from reading popular books but also from getting access to educational texts and other professional literature.

“This is not just about ‘Harry Potter,’ ” Danielsen said. “It’s a matter of inclusion in education and employment. To have these opportunities available to blind people . . . is critical to success.”

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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