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The Marrakesh Treaty in Action: Exciting Progress in Access to Published Works for the Blind and Print-Disabled Communities

The following is a guest blog post by Shira Perlmutter, Register of Copyrights and Director, U.S. Copyright Office

The Marrakesh Treaty has proven to be a success in advancing global copyright policy and achieving meaningful results for those in need. Exciting progress has been made in the United States and abroad in fulfilling the Treaty’s mandate.

Two years ago, on February 8, 2019, the United States formally joined the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled. This was the culmination of many years of hard work, from initial discussions at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to a 2013 diplomatic conference, to implementing amendments to the U.S. Copyright Act in 2018.

Photograph of U.S. representative signing Marrakesh Treaty

United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva Betty King signed the Marrakesh Treaty on October 2, 2013, in the presence of WIPO Director General Francis Gurry (standing left) and Todd Reves, IP attaché (standing right). Photo: WIPO, Emmanuel Berrod.

This treaty was prompted by the widespread recognition of what has been called the global “book famine”—the dearth of books published in formats accessible to the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are blind or visually impaired. I had the honor to be part of the U.S. interagency team that worked with the affected communities, stakeholders, and other countries to develop the text and negotiate the treaty. I will never forget the cheers that reverberated in the hallway when final agreement was reached at the diplomatic conference in Marrakesh, or the thrilling musical performance afterwards by Stevie Wonder.

The Marrakesh Treaty requires countries to provide an exception in their copyright laws, similar to that contained in the U.S. Copyright Act, to make it easier for blind and print-disabled persons to obtain printed works in accessible formats such as braille and digital audio files. It also establishes rules enabling the exchange of such accessible format versions across national borders. There are now 79 contracting parties to this treaty, covering a total of 105 countries.

Domestic stakeholders, congressional staff, and the U.S. government all worked collaboratively to implement the treaty obligations into our law. In the 2018 Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act (MTIA), Congress made a few amendments to the scope of the existing exception in section 121 of the Copyright Act, and added a new section 121A. The latter allows nonprofit or governmental entities that serve blind or print-disabled persons—known as “authorized entities”—to import and export accessible format copies for the benefit of those patrons. For more details, the Copyright Office has information on both the treaty and the MTIA posted on our website.

The Marrakesh Treaty has already been a tremendous achievement for the blind and visually impaired communities in the United States. Since it entered into force in May 2019, much has been done, including here at the Library of Congress, to start reaping its benefits. The Library’s National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), founded in 1931, has long administered a free national library program that provides braille and recorded materials to people who cannot see regular print or handle print materials. U.S. membership in Marrakesh has allowed NLS, as an authorized entity, to make thousands of accessible format works available throughout the world, as well as to import over 1,700 foreign titles in at least 10 languages for its patrons. NLS has developed a number of practices and policies to support its work as an authorized entity under the MTIA.

A person with print disabilities uses a BARD mobile.

NLS patron Bev C. reads with BARD Mobile while sailing. Photo courtesy of NLS.

One of NLS’s partners in leveraging the Marrakesh Treaty to maximize the availability of accessible format works worldwide is the Accessible Books Consortium’s (ABC’s) Global Book Service (GBS), a project under the aegis of WIPO. GBS works with authorized entities such as NLS to make hundreds of thousands of accessible format works in 80 languages available for immediate download, along with 7,000 music scores. To date, NLS has shared over 103,000 digital accessible format works with GBS, including approximately 20,000 digital braille titles and about 84,000 audio books.

The ABC is scheduled to begin a pilot program this year involving an enhanced GBS, with the goal of enabling NLS’s network libraries to directly search GBS for overseas titles on behalf of NLS patrons. NLS will be working with a small number of its network libraries to test the utility and functionality of this new GBS within the structure of NLS’s network of libraries.

In addition to its work with the ABC, NLS has received content from, exported content to, or begun conversations with the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) in Canada, the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the United Kingdom, the Fundación Chile Música y Braille in Chile, and the Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles (ONCE) in Spain. When importing accessible format works, NLS has to convert, catalog, and import the content according to its best practices. Given that collections around the world are in a host of formats (GBS’s catalog, for example, includes numerous content formats such as Daisy Audio, electronic braille, Daisy text (to be read by a computer), etc.), these tasks are quite time- and resource-consuming.

A person with print disabilities reads a braille book.

NLS patron Sammie C. enjoys a braille book. Photo courtesy of NLS.

If an individual NLS patron becomes aware of an overseas title that he or she would like to access, NLS recommends emailing the relevant network library. If that network library needs help, it can contact NLS. The network library and NLS may then collaboratively pursue available options through ABC or a nearby authorized entity. Finally, any inquiries about NLS and its work under Marrakesh can be sent to [email protected].

The work of relying on the Marrakesh Treaty to provide accessible format works to people who are blind or print disabled has begun in earnest, and NLS and its partners are a crucial part.  There are also many other authorized entities here in the United States that are participating in various ways to support the blind and visually impaired communities. I want to acknowledge and thank our colleagues at NLS, led by director Karen Keninger, for all their work, both domestically and internationally, to put this treaty into practice. It is tremendously gratifying to see the goals of the Marrakesh Treaty start to become a reality, providing meaningful assistance to a community in need in countries around the world.

2 Comments

  1. SANJAYA KUMAR SARANGI
    February 22, 2021 at 1:18 pm

    The work of of Marrakesh Treaty provides wonderful for the people who are blind or disabled. I want to acknowledge that the workdone is very tremendus to become a reality, providing meaningful assistance to a society not in the Countries but around the globe.

  2. Robert Martinengo
    February 23, 2021 at 2:50 pm

    US copyright law was amended in 1996 to allow reproduction of copyrighted works without permission for people with disabilities. Since then, educational institutions came to rely heavily on publishers to provide source files for textbooks (mostly NIMAS for K12, PDF and EPUB for higher-ed), to be made in to accessible formats. Also, Bookshare now receives the vast majority of its books as donated files from publishers. The Marrakesh Treaty relies on ‘authorized entities’, funded by government an charity, to provide books. The Treaty is useful, but is secondary to efforts encouraging publishers to offer accessible books on the open market.

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