Audiovisual Materials in the Classroom and the WIPO treaty for copyright exceptions for persons with disabilities

My name is Fedro De Tomassi. I am a student at St. Olaf College, class of 2014, and next week I will be a volunteer (as a guide and interpreter) at the Diplomatic Conference to Conclude a Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities (June 17 to 28, 2013 – Marrakesh, Morocco)

People with disabilities including the blind and visually impaired persons must have the same educational opportunities and access to information as any other person. To do that we need to make sure this treaty includes all current and future educational methods. It has to be a relevant treaty for the 21 century and I hope the delegates will pay attention to my generation and the next one too.

Today’s classroom experience is not what it used to be. Most of times, there are still professors facing students in a classroom, but now the use of audiovisual technologies is widespread. As a student at St. Olaf college in Minnesota, I can describe how it has become an integral part of the teaching and learning experience. St. Olaf is a small liberal arts college about an hour from St Paul. Created in 1874, the College is traditional in may ways, but is also on top of the latest pedagogical trends and technical progress. The campus is –as is quite typical now days–entirely wired and all classrooms are fully equipped with computers, some have white boards and all access to the Internet. They are more computers and screens than books on many desks, and projection screens are often used instead of a black board.

At St. Olaf College, videos are now being used by professors in all areas of study, but probably even more in the scientific courses. They are used often to help students reach a better understanding of the material. Most scientific information cannot be simply explained or described physically in the classroom, and digital simulations and models of complex concepts often benefit from audiovisual tools.

Since I started taking classes at St. Olaf college 3 years ago, there has not been one professor that has not used some sort of audiovisual aid during the course. I am a political science major, and the trends of using videos is no different in the humanities. For example in my Russian and Eurasian politics class, we studied the relations between the Soviet Union and its satellite states today, and the use of Youtube videos and documentary films were instrumental in giving us a better understanding of the situation. The use of videos in education has become a norm to address the needs of various types of learners as well as to complement the various tools and sources at the disposal of the professors.

Videos are not used solely in the classroom, they are assigned as homework and part of the syllabus and the “reading list” of most if not all courses you have to take to get a bachelor today. Audiovisual materials also compose a large part of the library. Archival footage for example is an essential part of a history major curriculum.

According to a report by the Video and Higher Education Project – New York University Libraries
(, in interviews with 57 faculty and librarians from 20 institutions and across 18 academic departments and schools, they found data to support the following:

The educational use of video on campus is accelerating rapidly in departments across all disciplines—from arts, humanities, and sciences to professional and vocational curricula. Faculty, librarians, and administrators expect their use of video in education to grow significantly over the next five years. Technology, legal, and other barriers continue to thwart faculty finding and accessing the segments of video they want for teaching and lectures. University libraries contain significant video repositories but the majority of the content is in analog (VHS) format and/or is not networkable. The majority of video usage today is still confined to audiovisual viewing equipment in classrooms or at the library. Faculty and administrators expect the sources of their video to shift from offline analog storage to online delivery. The demand for educationally-targeted video archives and services is high.

Access to these types of material is far from being unusual and should be available to all of those who wish to study the material, including persons who are blind, visually impaired, the deaf, or living with any other disability that presents challenges to learning. While videos are not always perceived as the most important part of one’s education, I would argue that the use of audiovisual materials have become part of the curriculum and should be treated as such.

The use of audiovisual material is not only a growing trend in higher education, but in the K-12 as well. There are 100s of sites listing videos for classroom ( and there is a dedicated YouTube web page for teachers helping them find educationally-focused videos to share with their classroom ( ). The resources for audiovisual materials are in high demand and offers and products are everywhere in the private and the public education sector.

The Kahn Academy, a not-for profit organization with global reach has made interactive educational videos available to the public and to educators in the classroom. It has gained quite a lot of momentum and school districts such as the Los Altos district near silicon valley have started to use the videos in their classrooms. So far there have not been any significant changes in test scores. However, for many students, there has been a newfound enthusiasm for learning. The Altos district has had enough positive feedback that it has decided to expand its use of the Khan academy to more of its classes and to a wider range of grades.

Education is constantly evolving and in another fifteen years there will be new technologies that will enhance and even transform the classroom. Being excluded from this new educational environment as blind or deaf students seeks wrong on many levels. Why then, has the Obama Administration demanded that deaf persons and audiovisual works be excluded from the WIPO treaty on copyright exceptions for persons with disabilities, and why has the U.S. position advanced in the negotiations?

The inclusive texts

When the WIPO treaty for copyright exceptions for disabilities was first proposed in 1985 at WIPO and in UNESCO, it would have covered persons who were blind, visually impaired, deaf, or have other disabilities. That was also the approach of proposals advanced in WIPO beginning in 2008, by the World Blind Union, the DAISy Consortium, a group of countries in Latin America including Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay, and later by the African Group.

The US pushes to exclude deaf persons in 2010

In 2009, the Motion Picture Industry began to lobby the Obama Administration to narrow the treaty to “print disabilities” only, and to eliminate deaf persons as beneficiaries. By 2010, the Obama Administration took a hard line in the WIPO negotiations, backed upon by the European Union, to narrow the treaty, excluding deaf persons. This was designed to overcome political opposition from the MPAA, and the USPTO said the compromise on beneficiaries was necessary for the text to move forward. In November 2010, the WIPO SCCR agreed to separate the more “mature” issues of visually impaired and reading disabilities from “other disabilities” in its negotiations. In June 2011, a new committee sponsored negotiating text for this treaty (SCCR/24/9) defined beneficiaries in such a way that deaf persons were excluded.

The 2012 push to exclude audiovisual works.

From 1985 to 2011, the various treaty proposals all would have covered any copyrighted work, including, for example SCCR/23/7, the text published in December 2011. But shortly after the MPAA was able to remove deaf persons as beneficiaries, they lobbied the Obama Administration to remove audiovisual works from the text. The Obama Administration proposed this formally in June 2012, and in December 2012, there was a deal to eliminate audiovisual works from the text, in order to get an agreement to hold a diplomatic conference in June 2013. Since nothing is set in stone in the negotiation, that decision can be changed, but it will probably require a change of position in the Obama White House, which has threatened to block the treaty if audiovisual works are included.

What will be left out if the treaty excludes audiovisual works and persons who are deaf?

For persons who are deaf, it is relatively simple to provide captions to a video, and the technology is making this even easier. For an educational or training context, there is no reason why the treaty should not cover schools or other entities involved in providing professional training to make works accessible for persons who are deaf, particularly since the treaty would restrict access to works created under the exceptions to only those with that disability.

But how do we make video’s accessible to the visually impaired? The answer is through an audio description. Audio description is a narration service that attempts to describe what the sighted person takes for granted. This link gives one clear picture of the finished product, a video of the well-known first scene of Hamlet by Shakespeare.

The issue with audio description is that it is tedious and expensive to produce. Please check here for the guidelines….

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) is one of the major roadblocks to making these aids to expanding access to audiovisual works part of the treaty. They even sought to mobilize Bollywood opposition to the inclusion of audiovisual works, because the India government was among those fighting against the exclusion.

To really understand the difference audio description can make to a blind individual, here is another interesting link: There is a world of difference for a blind person between listening to a video made for the seeing and one that has an audio description.

After watching the examples of how videos can be made more accessible, the question this brings up is why is this not already part of the treaty? What are our values that we exclude these opportunities for persons who are blind or deaf?