by Scott C. LaBarre
From the Editor: Scott LaBarre is president of the NFB of Colorado and the National Association of Blind Lawyers. He practices disability law in Denver, and for four years now he has been working with others around the world to make it possible for blind people to reach across national borders to read accessible books. One of the most exciting presentations at this year’s convention was heard on July 6 when Scott reported on events that occurred just before the convention in Marrakesh, Morocco. This is what he said:
When I lost my vision due to a childhood virus at age ten, my life radically changed. I had always loved to read. When I first lost my sight, I thought that all the books had been cruelly yanked from my hands. Slowly I realized that, by using Braille and audio books, I could restore some access, but it was incredibly limited and slow.
What I did not know at the time was that, even though we live in one of the richest nations on earth, less than five percent of published works are available to us in accessible formats. And, as you have heard, that figure drops to less than one percent in the developing nations of our world. That is why the adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty is such an historic landmark victory in our right-to-read campaign. It will not only change the lives of those blind people living in developing nations but will also help us right here in America. Soon, not only will we have access to what all the other English-speaking countries are producing in accessible formats throughout the world, but we will also be able to put our hands on hundreds of thousands of books and more publications in foreign languages. This capacity would have been very helpful to me while I was attending St. John’s University in Minnesota. Originally I had planned on a double major in government and Spanish. Ultimately I dropped that Spanish major precisely because I could not get access to Spanish novels and other materials.
The road to Marrakesh has been long and at times arduous. I suppose that the first reason for this difficult journey is that any process involving the United Nations brings with it frustrating procedures and related eccentricities. For example, matters are rarely decided on up-or-down votes but rather through consensus. I recall one meeting in Geneva where it took almost two whole business days to adopt the agenda for the meeting just because a handful of nations was resisting the order of items. I also fondly remember that the United States introduced a proposal entitled a “Non-paper,” which was handed out in hard copy and contained eleven pages of print. I felt it. It had weight and substance, and yet it was a non-paper.
The road has also been tough because this treaty represents the first time ever that an international instrument exclusively addressed exceptions and limitations to copyright law. Previously any international agreement granted exceptions and limitations only as part of a much broader scheme to protect the intellectual property rights of creators and other rights holders. As a result, you can imagine that rights holders of all kinds and sizes expressed great concern and fear about adopting a binding international instrument that did not set out to enlarge their rights but arguably to contract them. These rights holders were not so much afraid of market erosion from the blind, because we represent such a tiny percentage of the world’s population; rather they feared that this was the proverbial camel’s nose getting under the tent. Well, my friends, on the desert plains of Marrakesh, we were able to accommodate that camel’s nose, and it did not tip over the tent.
Originally the world’s largest corporations and associations either expressly opposed the treaty or offered alternative language that would have made the treaty unusable and ineffective. These entities included, but were not limited to, Exxon Mobile, GE, Caterpillar, Adobe, IBM, Association of American Publishers, International Publishers Association, the Motion Picture Association of America, and many, many others. Additionally, very influential blocs of nations like the European Union and the United States were essentially blocking our efforts. How in the world could a group of blind people fight such large corporations and strong nations? You know how. It was the hope and belief we had in ourselves, our unshakable faith in the capacity of the blind. No amount of money and power could hold us down. By the end either we had to find a way to get these corporations, nations, and associations to work with us, or we had to render them silent. We did so because of the power we possess, the power of collective action, the power of the National Federation of the Blind.
Although efforts have been made on and off for nearly thirty years to help end the book famine for the blind, this treaty campaign began in earnest during 2008 when the Federation met with the World Blind Union and Knowledge Ecology International in Washington, DC. You will be pleased to know that our very own James Gashel helped write the first draft of the proposed treaty text. When Dr. Maurer first asked me to work on this matter in 2009, I appeared at a hearing before the Register of Copyright at the Library of Congress where the US government wanted to collect the opinions of US blindness organizations about this treaty proposal. At first the United States government and the European Union attempted to convince us that we really didn’t want or need a binding international treaty. We should first pursue a “soft law,” joint recommendation, and then, some day way off in the future, seek a binding international accord. They tried to tell us that our problems would be solved more quickly that way and that treaties were difficult if not impossible to achieve. I don’t believe that these governments meant to insult us, but, when you think about it, their message was incredibly insulting and demeaning. Their message was that the blind can wait. Our problems are second-class problems and deserve second-class treatment.
Are we willing to wait? Will we be denied first-class citizenship? The NFB adopted a resolution in 2010 calling upon the US government to work hard towards the adoption of binding international norms, in other words, a treaty. Our work and our perseverance ultimately led to the United States changing its position and supporting the convening of a diplomatic conference to conclude a treaty. This did not happen out of thin air. It happened because of the National Federation of the Blind and our unwillingness, our refusal to be treated as second-class citizens!
As Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and Dr. Maurer have taught us, freedom for the blind is not granted out of charity and bestowed upon us. We must demand it and then earn it. We must lead the effort to emerge from the chains of second-class status to the unlimited liberty of first-class citizenship. If adoption of this treaty was to become a reality, it was incumbent upon us to lead the way, and lead the way we did.
Leadership requires creativity and the ability to think out of the box. As we headed towards Marrakesh, rights holders were doing their best to protect their own turf. Highly paid lawyers and lobbyists were bombarding the Obama Administration with letters and phone calls urging either outright US opposition to the treaty or the introduction of language into the text that would greatly limit its effectiveness. We knew we had to find ways to push back. That is why we called upon all of you to sign petitions and contact various legislators. That is why we ran messages on our giant 12 by 40 NFB electronic billboard calling upon Exxon and GE to stop blocking books for the blind, a billboard seen by tens of thousands of drivers each day as they headed down I-95. That is why we joined with Bookshare and worked with Stevie Wonder and his management team to get Stevie involved in these talks. Stevie is recognized as an ambassador of peace by the United Nations and originally appeared before the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) General Assembly in 2010 to call for adoption of this treaty. That is why we asked many of you to record videos explaining your personal stories about why we desperately needed access to more books. That is why we issued a joint statement with the Motion Picture Association of America calling upon international negotiators to get back to basics and get a meaningful treaty adopted.
As we started our travels to Marrakesh, thirty-seven distinct issues remained unresolved, without consensus, in the treaty text. To give you some perspective, at a diplomatic conference in Beijing, China, last year to conclude work on a treaty for audio visual performers, there was only one unresolved matter as the negotiators started that conference. As the Marrakesh Conference began, new, unresolved issues emerged, and it appeared that we were headed backward and that the conference would fail. At one plenary session of the Conference, Mustafa Kalfi, Minister of Communications for the Kingdom of Morocco, who had been elected as president of the diplomatic conference, delivered an impassioned speech urging the negotiators to get busy making decisions and to stop dreaming up new issues and controversies. He threatened to close all the airports and means of transportation out of Morocco until a strong treaty emerged. Stevie Wonder chimed in with a video message that he would come and perform for the delegates only if a strong, meaningful treaty were adopted. Of course the WBU and Federation added our voices to this chorus and urged the negotiators not to let the blind of the world down.
Late in the evening of Tuesday, June 25, we heard the words that we had all been hoping and waiting to hear. One of the negotiators from Brazil stepped out of a closed room where a small group of key negotiators had been deliberating and said, “You have a treaty.” The hallway erupted in cheers, and joy surged in our hearts. Believe it or not, my Federation friends, even I was left speechless. Words could not express the scope of what we had accomplished. The Marrakesh treaty represents the first time that a binding international accord exclusively addresses the issues faced by the blind. We changed the world! Although my body was there in Marrakesh, Morocco, my heart was home, home here with my Federation family.
Credit for this historic accomplishment belongs to many: with the WBU and its member organizations who advocated zealously with great effect; with the US government delegation who worked with us effectively and tirelessly; and with many rights holders like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Association of American Publishers, who stepped up ultimately and did the right thing. But let there be no mistake. The Federation exercised leadership at critical moments, and we changed the world. This could not have happened without all of you. Without your love and support, your collective action through a willingness to sign petitions, make calls, and do whatever it took, Fred Schroeder and I could not have achieved success in Marrakesh. We are only two individuals, and we do not possess nearly enough power or persuasion to change the world as we have for the blind. As Dr. Jernigan said, “We change what it means to be blind through individual actions collectively focused.” Similarly, Helen Keller said that “The world is not moved only by the mighty shoves of the heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” It is only fitting that the delegates to WIPO officially adopted this treaty on June 27, Helen Keller’s birthday.
On Monday, June 24, the WBU held a press conference in front of the Palais des Congres, where the conference took place, and our very own Fred Schroeder spoke eloquently about the urgent need to end the book famine and to end it now. In front of Fred and the other speakers stood a pile of 200 books, 198 of which were wrapped in chains and secured with a padlock, the two unchained books representing, of course, the one percent of published works to which we actually have access.
The adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty represents the unlocking of the padlock. However, the chains are still there. Our freedom is still imprisoned. We must celebrate this great victory, but we must not rest. The book famine still exists, and our hearts and minds are starved for the information we need. Information is power, and we must never stop acquiring more of it. We cannot rest until every child, like Raveena Alli from Atlanta, who spoke so powerfully this morning about the importance of literacy, has access to all the books and information available. We must now redouble our efforts and get President Obama to sign the treaty and our United States Senate to ratify it. This will not be easy, but difficulty has never deterred us. We know how to cast off the chains and assume our rightful place in society. No power on Earth will bind us and keep us down. We will be free, my brothers and sisters, we will be free!