Historic Chance to End the Book Famine Must Not Be Lost

Blog Date: 
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
By Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
 
I was moved recently by a story of a bright young Chinese-American woman named Michelle Yang.  Blind from birth, Michelle explained that as a child she could not read folk tales in Hmong, her native language, because they cannot be physically imported or e-mailed into the United States—or to any other country for that matter—in Braille.  
 
Instead, because of global copyright laws, they must wastefully be produced separately in accessible forms in every country where a blind child wants to enjoy and learn her own heritage in her own tongue.  
 
Antiquated global copyright laws have contributed to a worldwide “book famine” for those of us who are blind or who cannot read print due to other disabilities. Even in the United States, only 5 percent of all printed materials are estimated to be accessible to the blind and print disabled.  Worldwide, that figure drops to just 1 percent.  
 
Delegates from almost two-hundred nations are currently in Marrakech, Morocco, at a formal Diplomatic Conference under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organization to end the book famine for the blind and print disabled.  After over four years of preliminary discussions, they have until Friday to negotiate a copyright treaty intended to encourage the production, and easy import and export of books and other print materials in Braille and other formats that the blind and print disabled can use.  
 
The road to Marrakech has been long and hard, and at this eleventh hour with so much at stake, it is hard to imagine who could stand in the way of such a treaty. Nonetheless, some of the world’s largest corporations—like GE, Caterpillar, and ExxonMobil—recently have written to the governments of the United States and the European Union to express alarm.  The worry?  That their multi-billion dollar patent portfolios could somehow be harmed in future patent negotiations by the narrow exceptions to copyright law slated for debate and ratification in Marrakech.  Sadly, and irrationally, their broad camel’s nose now threatens to collapse the very narrow Marrakech treaty’s tent.
 
In truth, the treaty being negotiated this week in Marrakech has nothing whatsoever to do with patents and everything to do with ending the profound and inexcusable “book famine” that has afflicted 10 million Americans and almost 300 million people around the world for far too long.  Success in Marrakech means much more than providing children with folk tales.   Abject poverty goes hand in hand with print disabilities everywhere.  In the United States, blessed as it is, almost a third of blind adults live below the poverty line.  In the developing world, which is home to an estimated 90 percent of the world’s 285 million blind, the terrible price of the book famine is even higher.  
 
Where even minimal education or job training can mean the difference between bare subsistence and being able to create a better life for one’s children, the virtual absence of books and training materials in Braille and other accessible formats is a violation of the human rights of hundreds of millions of men, women, and children.  The book famine must end.   
 
The United States’ chief negotiator said to the WIPO General Assembly just before Christmas last year, “Nothing is more important to improve the situation of the world’s blind than improving their access to the written word.”
 
As we approach the final days of negotiations, I say to every delegate, negotiator, and nation working at the Diplomatic Conference that producing nothing in Marrakech is not an option, practically or morally.  
 
Neither is reaching an accord that is so narrow or complex as to be an unusable path by those ready and able to provide the blind and print disabled with the materials they desperately need to think their way out of poverty and the lack of knowledge that is created when the mind does not have access to something as simple and powerful as a book. 
 
At a time when access to information is critical to opportunity and success, the blind cannot and must not be left behind.  Failure is not an option in Marrakech.  Success will bring the blind and print disabled all over the world more access to more information than we have ever had in human history.