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Marrakesh treaty bolsters India’s effort to make written work accessible for the disabled.
The joy at the passing of the amendment to the Indian Copyright Act in 2012, enabling persons with disabilities to convert, or have converted on their behalf, works published in India into accessible formats like braille, ebooks, audio etc, was limited. Books published in India were now within the reach of millions of persons for whom copyright law was a barrier to access but for books published elsewhere — which are especially important in academia — access was still a distant dream. Finally, this hurdle has been crossed with India signing the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled, last week.
Traditionally, copyright law is seen as protecting free expression by safeguarding the rights of the owner of a work to be acknowledged as such, and by ensuring that they collect the benefits accruing from the work. However, intellectual property rights in general have also been acknowledged as a curb on many basic rights. Activists have tried to, on several occasions, balance the needs of industry and of consumers, and exceptions to copyright law have been recognised since the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works of 1886 and continue to evolve to this day.
In the case of persons with disabilities, there were barriers to their right of access to knowledge, which is a corollary of the right to free speech and expression. The access to knowledge movement is a complex one, with stakeholders examining issues from various perspectives, including intellectual property, privacy and security. But for persons with disabilities, the debate was really at the entry level — was there any point to the availability of knowledge if it did not come with the right to be able to access it in the format they were comfortable with?
Issues concerning persons with disabilities and their access to copyrighted material have been highlighted in the international community since 1981, when the governing bodies of the World Intellectual Property Organisation and UNESCO agreed to create a working group on “access by the visually and auditory handicapped to material reproducing works produced by copyright”. This was further reiterated in 2006, with the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 30 of the convention states that laws protecting intellectual property must not pose a discriminatory or unreasonable barrier limiting access to cultural materials. In a way, it qualifies Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in continued…