Timeline: Addressing Copyright Related Barriers to Overcoming Reading Disabilities

This is a work in progress

Louis Braille invented a system of reading and writing by means of raised dots.

The American Foundation for the Blind was created with the support of M.C. Migel, a philanthropist who was moved to help the large number of veterans blinded in World War I. AFB was formed to provide “a national clearinghouse for information about vision loss and a forum for discussion for the burgeoning, yet dispersed, community of blindness service professionals. Made official at the convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa, AFB’s founding was also intended to generate new directions for research and represent the needs of people with vision loss in the nation’s corridors of power.”

An Act of the US Congress established the free national library program of reading materials for visually handicapped adults. The program was expanded in 1952 to include blind children, in 1962 to include music materials, and in 1966 to include individuals with physical impairments that prevent the reading of standard print. It depended on the cooperation of authors and publishers who granted permission to reproduce works in special formats without royalty.

The National Federation of the Blind was founded. Today the NFB is the largest membership organization for blind people in the United States.

Anne T. Macdonald founded Recording for the Blind. MacDonald was a member of the New York Public Library’s Women’s auxiliary in 1948 who was moved by letters from soldiers who has lost their sight during WWII. The newly-passed GI Bill of Rights guaranteed a college education to all veterans of the war, and those who would follow them, but for these blinded veterans, other obstacles prevented them from resuming their lives, including the inaccessibility of college textbooks. Macdonald said that “education is a right, not a privilege.” In 1995, the organization founded by MacDonald was changed to Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D).

A text-to-speech system for English was created by Umeda and others at the Electrotechnical Laboratory in Japan and demonstrated at the 6th International Congress on Acoustics, in Tokyo.

The Kurzweil reading machine for the blind, created by Raymond Kurzweil, was first marketed. The system was demonstrated on the CBS evening news.

The governing bodies of WIPO and UNESCO agreed to create a Working Group on Access by the Visually and Auditory Handicapped to Material Reproducing Works Produced by Copyright.

The Working Group on Access by the Visually and Auditory Handicapped to Material Reproducing Works Protected by Copyright met at UNESCO House, Paris, from October 25 to 27, 1982.

On January 3, 1983, a report of the Working Group which took place on 25-27 October 1982 was presented (UNESCO/WIPO/WGH/I/3). An accessible copy of this report is available here..

In December 1983, the Executive Committee of the Berne Union and the Intergovernmental Committee of the Universal Copyright Convention decided, each on its own behalf, to ask states to provide comments on the “Model Provisions Concerning the Access by Handicapped Persons to the Works Protected by Copyright,” which was drawn up by the October 1982 Working Group on the subject convented jointly by UNESCO and WIPO.

The World Blind Union, the only worldwide organization dealing with blindness came into being in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. According to Dr. Maurer “The World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, which had been established in 1949, and the International Federation of the Blind, which had been formed in 1964, were combined to create the World Blind Union. The International Federation of the Blind was an organization of blind consumers, and the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind was an organization of agencies for the blind.”

The Executive Committee of the Berne and the Intergovernmental Committee of the Universal Copyright Convention continued work on the issue of access by handicapped persons to works protected by copyright.

In Sony Corp. of Am. v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 714 (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court stated that copying “of a copyrighted work for the convenience of a blind person is expressly identified by the House Committee Report as an example of fair use, with no suggestion that anything more than a purpose to entertain or to inform need motivate the copying.”

In 1985, the Executive Committee for the Berne Convention and the Intergovernmental Committee of the Universal Copyright Convention published a report by Ms Wanda Noel, a Barrister and Solicitor from Ontario, Canada, on the topic of “Problems Experienced by the Handicapped in Obtaining Access to Protected Works,” as Annex II to a report of the agenda item “Copyright Problems Raised by the Access by Handicapped Persons to Protected Works.” Links to the report are available from UNESCO and WIPO.

Ms Noel’s report is 26 pages, and is a readable and concise presentation of the main issues facing the WIPO SCCR today. In her conclusion, she recommends

“an entirely new international instrument which would permit production of special media materials and services in member states, and with the distribution of those material and services amongst member states without restriction.”

The DAISY Consortium was formed in May, 1996, to advance a worldwide transition from analog to digital “talking books.” DAISY denotes the Digital Accessible Information SYstem.

Under the Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, H.R. 3754, Congress approved a measure, introduced by Senator John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) on July 29, 1996, that provides for an exemption affecting the NLS program. On September 16, 1996, the bill was signed into law by President Clinton. PL 104-197

In 1999, a group of blind friends who wanted to exchange digital books founded Tiflolibros in Argentina, as the first digital library for Spanish-speaking blind persons.

Sept. 25, 2000, NIST announced the development of a new reader that transforms the text of e-books into Braille, and also can be used for reading e-mail, browsing the World Wide Web, and other text-based applications.

In November 2000, the World Blind Union held a General Assembly in Melbourne, Australia, where it passed a resolution on copyright, that pointed to abuses in the copyright system as a major barrier to equitable access to information, and called for national and international solutions.

In December 2000, the WBU and IFLA meet with WIPO in Geneva, including a 40 minute meeting with Jorge Blomqvist. Mr. Blomqvist reportedly told the WBU that “for any treaty to insist on exceptions, rather than merely tolerating them, the Berne Convention would have to be amended unanimously by its signatories.”

In August 2001, at the 67th IFLA Council and General Conference, David Mann of the WBU publishes “WIPO: Advancing Access to Information for Print Disabled People.” Mann’s paper provides and analysis of WIPO and other international organizations, and sets out an advocacy agenda for the WBU. He concludes by asking and answering this question:

So, what do we need from WIPO and other international bodies?
8.3.1. We need international treaties that allow the creation of non-commerical alternative, accessible versions and their free flow across international boundaries.
8.3.2. We need national legislative regimes that are harmonized to ensure consistency for organizations, individuals and right holders, protecting rights holders from exploitation and protecting visually impaired people and their agencies from unjustified barriers.
8.3.3. Equally, however, we need international treaties and harmonized national legislation which empowers member states to oblige rights holders to make available to bona finde blind and partially sighted people, and agencies working on their behalf, accessible versions of material ordinarily presented to the public wrapped in any form of rights management scheme, or protected by some other technological measure which renders them inaccessible to us.

In February 2002 Bookshare is launched. It allows members to share books they’ve scanned.

The World Blind Union (WBU) makes a forceful intervention at WIPO SCCR 7, which is reported as follows:

SCCR 7 REPORT, Geneva, May 13 to 17, 2002
143. The representative of the World Blind Union (WBU) welcomed the consideration of other issues by the SCCR. The topic of fair use in copyright and related rights deserved special attention. Consumers such as libraries, schools and disabled persons, such as the visually-impaired, had an equally valid interest in having access to protected material. He reminded the Committee that some national legislation in developing countries did not include exceptions to copyright and related rights to facilitate blind people’s access to work. He asked WIPO to include that aspect in its legislative advice to developing countries. Also, material in electronic form could easily be transferred between different countries, but that was not possible for legal reasons. That meant unnecessary duplication of work. Another issue was the application of technological measures of protection that hindered the digital modification of content to make it accessible for disabled persons. He asked for WIPO’s support in studying these issues.

SCCR 10 (November 3, 2003 to November 5, 2003). Professor Sam Ricketson prepared a WIPO study examining limitations and exceptions in the digital environment generally. His study looks at the issue generally, and in addition considers the application of the 3-step test to specific areas of concern, including assisting visually or hearing impaired people.

November 3, 2003: WIPO Information Meeting on Digital Content for the Visually Impaired. WBU and IFLA presentations available here.

At the 70th IFLA General Conference and Council, August 2004, in the agenda item for Libraries for the Blind with Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons – “Balance of copyright and licensing: access to information for print handicapped people.” Presentations included:

  • “Copyright protection as access barrier for people who read differently: the case for an international approach” by Johan Roos (South African Library for the Blind, South Africa);
  • “Copyright: How can barriers to access be removed? An action plan for the removal of some copyright barriers that prevent equitable access to information by people with print disabilities” by Stephen King (Royal National Institute of the Blind, UK) and David Mann(RNIB UK: International copyright development for WBU supported by IFLA LBS and DAISY Consortium);
  • “Towards the ideal: steps to improved access” by Victoria Owen(CNIB Library for the Blind, Toronto, Canada);
  • “Copyright exceptions for the visually impaired: international perspective” by Geidi Lung (WIPO);
  • “The Tiflolibros model: International cooperation for delivery of digital books to blind people” Pablo Lecuona (Tiflolibros, Argentina).

The World Blind Union, the DAISY Consortium and IFLA Libraries for the Blind Section published an agreed policy position in April 2004:

12. IFLA LBS/WBU/Daisy also strive for the creation of international agreements which would allow the unhindered transfer of accessible material created in one country to blind, partially sighted and print disabled people in another country.

At SCCR 12 (November 17, 2004 to November 19, 2004), there was Proposal by Chile on the Subject “Exceptions and Limitations to Copyright and Related Rights” (SCCR/12/3). Chile asked for the inclusion for the Twelfth Session of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights of the subject of exceptions and limitations to copyright and related rights for the purposes of education, libraries and disabled persons, in the current agenda item referring to “other issues for review.”

At SCCR 13 (November 21, 2005 to November 23, 2005), the Delegation of Chile Chile elaborated its proposal in SCCR 13/5 specifying three areas of work to be undertaken in the SCCR:

  1. Identification, from the national intellectual property systems of member states, of national models and practices concerning exceptions and limitations;
  2. Analysis of the exceptions and limitations needed to promote creation and innovation and the dissemination of developments stemming therefrom;
  3. Establishment of agreement on exceptions and limitations for purposes of public interest that must be envisaged as a minimum in all national legislations for the benefit of the community; especially to give access to the most vulnerable or socially prioritized sectors.

At SCCR 14 (May 1, 2006 to May 5, 2006) Nic Garnett prepared a WIPO Study on Automated Rights Management Systems and Copyright Limitations and Exceptions, which also examined exceptions for the benefit of visually impaired people. He writes:

In short, at present, neither the market nor technology appears to be supporting a basis for facilitating the access to information by visually impaired people in a way that is consistent with the general standards for the full social and economic integration of people with disabilities.
5. Legal solutions
While they recognise the role of copyright law, visually impaired people have very specific needs in terms of access to information. Advanced technology goes further than ever before in meeting those needs. Yet many of the needs remain unmet.
For their part, publishers are required by the economics of their business and the markets within which they operate to carefully weigh risks and economic opportunities.
An important question is therefore whether current law provides a means for reconciling these different positions or, at least, bringing them into better alignment. The obvious conclusion – given that there are no specific provisions in international law dealing with the needs of visually impaired people – is that it does not. [page 33]

At the SCCR 15 (September 11, 2006 to September 13, 2006) Judit Sullivan prepared a comprehensive WIPO Study on Copyright Limitations and Exceptions for the Visually Impaired (SCCR/15/7). She writes:

Further debate about provision relating to exceptions in international treaties and conventions in the intellectual property area may be desirable in the long term, and developing countries may need further guidance about exceptions, but international agreements relevant to the rights of disabled people may already require countries to take the needs of disabled people into account when framing their copyright laws. [page11]


The international framework
(b) International treaties and conventions relating to copyright provide a framework that is complex and confusing for those drawing up exceptions to rights for the benefit of visually impaired people, but they do not oblige countries to make any provision. Further debate is desirable on this issue in the long term.
(c) International agreements relevant to the rights of disabled people may in any case require countries to take the needs of visually impaired people into account when framing their copyright laws.
(d) WIPO could facilitate further discussion about copyright and the rights of disabled people as well as developing its draft model law for developing countries in the light of the recommendations in this Study.[page 134]

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol was adopted on 13 December 2006 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and was opened for signature on 30 March 2007.

Article 30 Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport
3. States Parties shall take all appropriate steps, in accordance with international law, to ensure that laws protecting intellectual property rights do not constitute an unreasonable or discriminatory barrier to access by persons with disabilities to cultural materials

At the First Special Session of the WIPO SCCR S1 (January 17 to 19, 2007), according to the WIPO report:

23. The Delegation of Chile expressed support for the statement made by GRULAC, and drew attention to the issue of exceptions and limitations, which were important for the use of libraries and for handicapped and disabled persons and should be examined in depth in the current session in greater detail than previously. Following the current meeting, the Committee would have to wait for a further three years before discussing broadcasting again, and during that period the International Bureau should undertake a study on library usage. Some work was already underway in that area, in particular a study on exceptions and limitations for blind and partially sighted people, but there was a need for further work to be done, and for that reason a proposal had been made to study library facilities in more general terms. Such a study might provide a starting point for a more in-depth discussion and study of the issues. […]

24. The Delegation of El Salvador endorsed the comments made by preceding speakers and expressed whole-hearted support for the GRULAC statement. […]

At the 16th session of the WIPO SCCR (March 10, 2008 to March 12, 2008), the delegations of Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua and Uruguay formally endorsed a broad work program for Limitations and exceptions (L&E). The WIPO report stated that “the Committee noted with approval the forthcoming study on exceptions and limitations for the benefit of educational activities, including distance education and the trans-border aspect thereof, in particular for developing and least developed countries. The Committee acknowledged the special needs of visually impaired persons and stressed the importance of dealing, without delay and with appropriate deliberation, with those needs of the blind, visually impaired, and other reading-disabled persons, including discussions at the national and international level on possible ways and means facilitating and enhancing access to protected works.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol came into force on May 3, 2008.

On July 24-25 2008, the World Blind Union (WBU) and KEI convened an experts meeting to consider a possible WIPO Treaty for Improved Access for Blind, Visually Impaired and other Reading Disabled Persons. A report of the meeting is available here in html, pdf , Microsoft .doc or open document odt formats. The text of the WBU proposal for a treaty is available here in Arabic, English, French and Spanish. The English version is available in DAISY format from the DAISY Consortium website.

Christopher E.B. Friend, Chair, of the WBU Copyright and Right to Read Working Group, presented the treaty to WIPO Director General Francis Gurry in an October 28, 2008 letter.

At the November 3, 2008 to November 7, 2008, WIPO SCCR 17, SCCR 17 Informative Sessions were held on Limitations and Exceptions and on Audiovisual Performance. On November 4, 2008, the WBU and KEI held a side event on the right to read.

The SCCR 17 Conclusions included the following two paragraphs:

  • The Committee acknowledged the special needs of visually impaired persons and stressed the importance of dealing, without delay and with appropriate deliberation, with those needs of the blind, visually impaired, and other reading-disabled persons, including discussions at the national and international level on possible ways and means facilitating and enhancing access to protected works. This should include analysis of limitations and exceptions. This should also include the possible establishment of a stakeholders’ platform at WIPO, in order to facilitate arrangements to secure access for disabled persons to protected works. A number of delegations referred to a paper presented by the World Blind Union (WBU) and expressed interest in further analysing it.
  • In order to further complement the information on limitations and exceptions in national systems, the Secretariat will prepare a draft questionnaire which will be submitted for comments to the Member States before the next session of the SCCR. The areas covered by the questionnaire should include limitations and exceptions related to educational activities, activities of libraries and archives, provisions for disabled persons, as well as digital technology in the field of copyright.

On February 9, 2009, Amazon, Inc., released a new version of its popular e-book reader, the Kindle 2, which included text-to-speech technology.

On March 26, 2009, the United States Copyright Office and the United States Patent and Trademark Office published a Notice of Inquiry seeking comment on several focused topics related to the provision of access to copyrighted works for blind or other persons with disabilities. Additionally, a public meeting was be held on May 18, 2009 to facilitate a live exchange of views and information on this topic. The transcripts are here.

At SCCR 18 (May 25, 2009 to May 29, 2009), Brazil, Ecuador And Paraguay tabled a Proposal (SCCR18/5) “Relating To Limitations And Exceptions: Treaty Proposed By The World Blind Union (WBU).” And WIPO made available two new documents: Supplementary Information on the WIPO Studies on Limitations and Exceptions and a Draft Questionnaire on Limitations and Exceptions.

July-September 2009: Canada Copyright Reform Consultations. CNIB submission is here.

The ability to import and export alternative format material would also increase the overall output of alternative formats significantly, as each work would be produced once by a single organization, instead of multiple times by organizations in different countries. For example: if it takes 10 hours to narrate an audio book and eight different agencies produce it, 80 hours are used globally to produce a single book. That book and seven others could have been made available in the same time through international collaboration.

A draft treaty was recently proposed by the World Blind Union and three member states (Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay) to the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) that would legitimize the import and export of alternative format materials among trusted intermediaries.

On July 30, 2009, The United States signed The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and joined the 141 other countries that have signed it. There are at least 3 articles, namely 9, 30 and 32 specifically related to the WIPO proposal. Article 9 deals with a broad range of accessibility issues, Article 30 focuses on access to culture an Article 32 on international cooperation.