Ireland’s ratification of Marrakesh Treaty can open up a world of knowledge for students with disabilities
“While the signing of this treaty is a historic and important step, I am respectfully and urgently asking all governments and states to prioritize ratification of this treaty.”
Hearing this quote, you’d be forgiven for thinking it spilled from the mouth of a senior diplomat, or perhaps a head of state. In fact, they are the words of 25 time Grammy winning artist Stevie Wonder on a historic night in 2013, when he flew to Morocco to witness the adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty, which aims to increase access to books for those with visual impairments and print disabilities.
And finally, it seems the Irish Government have heeded Stevie’s call with a recent announcement by Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor (Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation) that Government approval has been given for the drafting of the “Copyright and Related Rights Bill, 2016”, which will enshrine the treaty in Irish law.
The treaty officially came into effect earlier this year when Canada became the 20th country to ratify it, and other countries who have already done so include Argentina, Brazil, India and Australia. There are positive signs coming from the US too where earlier this year, President Barack Obama released an official White House statement recommending that the Senate “give early and favourable consideration to the Marrakesh Treaty, and give its advice and consent to its ratification.”
The Marrakesh Treaty will allow ‘authorised entities’ to convert a book into an accessible format for use by people with visual impairments and other print disabilities, without consent from the copyright owner and crucially, will allow these accessible versions to be distributed cross-border to authorised entities in other countries which have signed and ratified the treaty.
So who is a beneficiary and who is an ‘authorised entity’?
The beneficiaries of the treaty (i.e. those for whom the normal national copyright law is overwritten for the purposes of the treaty) are those who are blind/visually impaired as well as those with other perceptual and reading disabilities, such as dyslexia. People with a physical disability which prevents them from turning the pages of a book would also be considered beneficiaries under the terms of the treaty.
Bodies which are allowed to create and distribute accessible versions of books are those authorised or recognised by governments to provide education, instructional training, adaptive reading or information access to beneficiary persons on a nonprofit basis. Moreover, they can be government institutions or nonprofit organisations that provide the same services to beneficiary persons as one of their primary activities or institutional obligations. Such organisations would include colleges, libraries, government departments and disability related not-for-profit organisations like AHEAD, amongst others.
What is the current state of play in Ireland?
Let’s look at it from the point of view of Laura – a fictional blind student entering a third level college in Ireland. Currently, when Laura registers with the Disability Officer in her college and hands over her booklist, they have to go through a long process to get to the point where they can provide her with accessible course texts.
This process will likely involve the following steps:
- Contacting the publisher of each required course textbook to seek consent and ask for a ‘clean’ unformatted electronic copy.
- Since ‘clean’ copies are usually not forthcoming from the publisher, a hard copy of each textbook is bought.
- The hard copy of each textbook is scanned page by page using advanced scanning software with high quality optical character recognition (OCR) meaning it can be transferred into editable text.
- The editable text version of each textbook is made accessible through a formatting process which includes the application of structure tags, which screen reading software can use to navigate the document more easily, and the adding of alternative text, which describes images for blind users.
This is a costly process meaning students like Laura may only receive a few books which are absolutely core to the curriculum, while her non-disabled peers have a whole gamut of extra information accessible to them. Additionally, the length of time the process takes can result in students like Laura waiting on texts long after their course has begun.
On top of this, it is currently illegal for an Irish college to share an accessible book with a college from another country without receiving the express permission of the copyright owner and in many cases, due to differing copyright and equality laws in different territories and growing concerns around piracy eating away at their profit margins, publishers may refuse the right of permission. This means that the time-consuming and expensive work of reproducing books in accessible formats is not only being duplicated in some cases nationally, but also worldwide.
So, how will the Marrakesh treaty change this, when ratified?
The most startling change for students here in Ireland is in the area of cross-border transfer of accessible books. Take a moment to consider the ramifications for Ireland if the world’s major English speaking nations ratify the treaty. Remember that Australia and Canada have already completed ratification and the USA has made positive steps towards it. The USA has a population roughly 70 times the size of Ireland and it stands to reason that there are many more English language accessible books produced there every year as a result. Ratification of the treaty by both Ireland and the US would give prompt access to all of this previously unavailable material to Irish based students who need it and will open up the possibility of an international library of accessible texts in the future.
Suddenly Laura, through her college, would have quick access to millions of accessible books produced by colleges and other authorised entities across the English speaking world and it would cost her college very little in terms of time and money to obtain these texts.
When the treaty was adopted back in 2013, the blind community who have fought particularly hard for this measure rejoiced. The aforementioned Stevie Wonder even kept his promise to perform for the negotiators in Marrakesh the night after agreement was reached.
Not many people this side of Europe would have known much about the city of Marrakesh before this treaty, but many would recognize the city of Casablanca some 240km north of there, as the setting of one of the most iconic films ever made. Humphrey Bogart speculates in this cinematic classic, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and for students with disabilities, with the possibility of doors opening to a world of knowledge previously closed to them, he might well be right.