Marrakesh Express Rolling Home

Posted by Scott C. LaBarre | 10/02/2018 | Advocacy
Scott LaBarre gives a presentation at the national convention.

Last week, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed S.2559, the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act of 2018, which amends our domestic copyright law to comply with the Marrakesh Treaty that our Senate ratified at the end of June.

The measure is now on its way to the President’s desk, and when he signs it into law, the United States will be free to deliver our ratification to the World Intellectual Property Organization, and thus fully climb aboard the Marrakesh Express.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my journey on the Marrakesh Express began at age ten when a virus took my vision. As a young boy, I loved to read, and I thought normal vision was an absolute requirement for pursuing the joy of reading. A little later, I learned that all hope was not lost. I could learn Braille and use audio recordings. But this never seemed to be a full solution because it took so long to get my hands on the same books my sighted friends and colleagues had read several months, even years before. 

Little did I know at the time that copyright law was one of the major barriers preventing timely access to books for the blind.

As a young kid growing up in Woodbury, Minnesota, I had no idea that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and other similar organizations, needed to ask for permission from the rights holder to create an accessible copy of a work – permission that was either never granted or took a terribly long time to acquire.

In 1996, the National Federation of the Blind, along with the Association of American Publishers, took a decisive step in starting to eliminate the information barrier by urging the US Congress to pass what became known as the Chafee Amendment. Domestically, passage of Chafee solved significant problems and gave us greater, and more timely, access to published works, but it did not allow us access to the great wealth of material available throughout the world.

That is why the World Blind Union began advocating for an international treaty, which would create Chafee-like amendments all over the globe, and would expressly permit cross-border sharing of accessible works. The Federation, a member of WBU, officially joined this effort in 2008 to draft the first version of what later would become the Marrakesh Treaty.

In 2009, I personally became involved in these efforts when Marc Maurer, Immediate Past President of the Federation, assigned me to represent the NFB at a hearing before the US Copyright Office at the Library of Congress. It was there where the Registrar of Copyright was seeking input on whether the United States should participate in the effort to adopt the treaty proposal, which had been brought before WIPO.

In a relatively short post like this, I cannot possibly recount all the barriers we have had to face and knock down on our way. Believe me, there were many times when we thought that the Marrakesh Express was almost surely derailed.

Although I have been seen as the lead on-the-ground actor in our efforts, it has taken a huge team, internal and external, to bring Marrakesh home.

For me, the emotions tied to this journey relate back to that day when I realized that I was blind and I would be so the rest of my life. Then, I felt trapped, imprisoned by the inability to see, and the inability to read and access knowledge. Fortunately, I have since realized liberation and freedom, and know that I can live the life I want. It is precisely those feelings of liberation and freedom that I have felt along the Marrakesh road.

Through adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty and its ratification here in the United States, the world has definitively and undeniably declared that access to information for the blind and print disabled is an international human right and a global priority.

The founder of the Federation, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, in a 1966 law review article, boldly declared that the blind and others with disabilities have a right to live in the world. Last week’s passage of the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act of 2018 signifies that we have gone a long way toward securing that right, yet we realize we have not completed the entire journey. Let’s rededicate ourselves to bringing Marrakesh, and the promise of freedom and equality it represents, all the way home!

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