Closed Book

Closed Book

In law school in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Thomas Alieu was smart, determined, and thwarted. "I wanted to become the first blind lawyer in this country," says Alieu, who was blinded by the measles when he was 5. He’d survived the country’s decade-long civil war and thrived at university — he earned a bachelor’s degree in history — but when he got to law school, he couldn’t find recordings of his specialized textbooks, and the classmates who had read aloud to him as an undergraduate were too busy to do the same in law school. "I was forced to be a dropout because the materials were not there."

So Alieu founded the Educational Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Freetown, where he runs Sierra Leone’s only Braille printing press, a gift seven years ago from the Dutch. The books are expensive, the copies few, and the heavy paper needed to successfully emboss the raised dots of the Braille alphabet is scarce. The center is a bare-bones library, and even today, nothing here would help a guy like Alieu get through law school.

Theoretically, Alieu could use the same texts specially digitized in the United States, or Braille copies printed here and donated and shipped there; Sierra Leone’s students study in English, after all. But sharing Braille books across borders is illegal. At least for the moment.

On Monday, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) will decide whether to move forward with a treaty that would finally make it permissible to share accessible texts across borders. The proposed "VIP treaty" (for "visually impaired") would also provide, in effect, the same exception to copyright law that exists in the United States, allowing organizations to copy, in a variety of accessible formats, a copyrighted work without getting permission from or paying a fee to the copyright holder.

That’s usually referred to as a copyright "exception," and only a third of all countries have one, according to Dan Pescod, a manager of accessibility campaigns for the Britain’s Royal National Institute of the Blind and vice chair of the World Blind Union’s Right to Read campaign. The proposed treaty "would get the remaining two-thirds to put into place a national exception, and it would make it legal for us to send accessible books from one country to another."

"Accessible books" includes Braille print copies, but the more important issue is digital files. Specially coded audio books allow the blind to navigate between chapters, bookmark their reading, and otherwise interact with a text as a sighted person might with a print volume. There are also various text-to-speech programs that can adapt a book for a visually impaired reader. All of these are based on digital files that blind resource organizations say would be easy to share with visually impaired readers, if not for the current regulations.

"Let’s say the United States produces the book," says Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind.  "Canada has to produce their own version; England has to produce their own version; Australia has to produce its own version, even though all of them are producing it in English Braille or an English talking book."

That’s no small thing. Take Britain’s most lately beloved literary export, Harry Potter. It cost the National Braille Press in Boston roughly $80,000 to set and print one volume of the series, though the work had already been done in other countries. Pescod says the resources his Royal National Institute of the Blind used to duplicate a single Harry Potter text could have paid for another four titles in Braille and another seven accessible audiobooks.

Current copyright regulations are contributing to a global "book famine" for blind or visually impaired readers, who number around 285 million, according to the World Blind Union (WBU). The WBU estimates that less than 1 percent of all titles are available in accessible formats in the developing world, and only 7 percent in the developed world. Only 8,517 books are accessible to the blind in Chile, Columbia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Uruguay combined, according to the WBU, yet Argentina has 63,000 accessible titles and Spain has 102,000. Spanish, of course, is a national language in each of those countries, but current copyright law doesn’t permit Spain or Argentina to share its converted texts.

The publishing industry doesn’t support the treaty, and so far, the Obama administration appears to be siding with them, if only by omission. "The U.S. has never said no, but they also have never said yes," says Vera Franz, senior at the Open Society Foundation, which supports the treaty.

At previous WIPO meetings, U.S. delegates have pushed for non-binding recommendations, rather than a binding treaty. The European Union long supported that position but reversed itself in November, making the United States a lone but powerful holdout. "If they are not supporting this project, it cannot move forward," Franz says.

This week’s conference is the final vote on whether to push ahead with a treaty, which could come to a general vote as early as June. WIPO’s consensus-based decision-making means American support would be required to move forward, according to Franz.

The State Department declined to comment on the proposed treaty or Monday’s meeting.  Justin Hughes, who heads up the American delegate to the proceedings for the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, withheld specifics about the U.S. position but said in an email that "the U.S. is working with many delegations to ensure that Monday’s meeting goes smoothly."

Advocates insist anything less than a treaty won’t be smooth at all. "If it’s some kind of recommendation, it will be seen as much less serious and less likely to be applied to governments across the world," says Pescod. "We haven’t worked for many years on this issue to be fobbed off" with a softer agreement.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) opposes the current language of the proposed treaty. "In the view of the publishing community, [the treaty’s terms] need more work.  They’re really not ready for prime time," says Allan Adler, AAP’s general counsel and vice-president of government affairs.

Adler argues that countries are capable of passing their own copyright exceptions nationally. After all, the treaty is modeled on the Chafee amendment, a 1996 U.S. bill, which Adler helped craft and lobby for, that created the exception in the United States. But his bigger concern, he says, is the nature of the treaty.  "This will be the first of its kind that sets forth limitations and exceptions on the rights of copyright owners without also setting forth the rights of the copyright owners," he says.

The AAP fears such a precedent because of what might come next. WIPO members are having ongoing conversations about copyright exceptions for libraries and archives, for example, and a draft treaty for broader use without pay and across borders is already in circulation. A similar conversation is happening at WIPO about educational materials and learning institutions. AAP fears the VIP treaty could be the beginning of an all-out assault on intellectual property.

Publishers are also concerned, of course, about piracy. But Jim Fruchterman, founder of Bookshare, a free library for the visually impaired, says his experience doesn’t bear that fear out. "Bookshare right now has 220,000 members — probably more, it’s growing all the time — and in the last year, they downloaded more than 1 million books," he says. "In the average year, we find 10 books from Bookshare on the Internet."

Fruchterman sat on the expert panel that helped the World Blind Union draft the first version of the treaty, and Bookshare’s parent non-profit organization, Benetech, is an official observer of the WIPO committee that put the VIP treaty forward.

Like many publishers, Bookshare scans the Internet for unauthorized distribution of its titles. It also encodes its titles with the borrower’s name and a unique, hidden digital stamp, so that Bookshare can trace the leaked title to the borrower. "In nine of 10 instances, we find have name of the user who downloaded book still in the file," he says. "Does that say pirates to you? Or does that say, ‘I have no idea how the Internet works, and I put it on a school website that Google could index.’"

Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, says passing a treaty could actually reduce the risk of piracy. "We’re not any more interested in piracy than the publishers are," she says. "But when people don’t have books, they’re more apt to pirate than when they do."

There is one way around the prohibition against sharing, and that’s to get the permission of the publisher. Fruchterman has done that (in coordination with the AAP) with about half of the 170,000 titles available at Bookshare, but it can be more difficult in countries where copyright works differently. Bookshare hasn’t found a single publisher willing to cooperate in France, where copyright law is among the strictest in the world.

But if the legal arrangements were in place, the technology exists to transform reading for the visually impaired in the developing world at very little cost. Bookshare "could do all of sub-Saharan Africa for $1 million a year," says Fruchterman. "That’s because we’re delivering those services to U.S. for $7 or $8 million a year, and on the margin it doesn’t cost me that much more to serve the rest of the world. We have the economics of Amazon.com."

In the meantime, the developing world has to make do with what richer countries are legally allowed to donate. "We get letters from people all the time saying, ‘I’m trying to learn Braille, I live in Kenya, and I can’t get enough to read, can you send me anything?’" Brunson says. "And all we can send them is copies of our own magazine."