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Film copyright protections stymie world treaty on books for the blind

The Washington Post

Hundreds of negotiators from around the world have descended on Morocco over the past week to finalize a treaty aimed at ensuring that millions of blind and vision-impaired people can get books in accessible formats such as audio, Braille and large print.

But the treaty, years in the making, could be in jeopardy because of unresolved differences between advocates for the blind and the Motion Picture Association of America, which says the accord could undermine protections important for filmmakers, publishers and other major industries.

The agreement, known as the treaty for visually impaired persons, would allow for such books to be distributed internationally, which is now largely prohibited, and encourage governments to allow books to be converted to accessible formats without having to get permission from copyright owners every time.

Advocates for the blind are pressing to extend the kind of rights afforded by U.S. law — which allow books to be converted to accessible formats without seeking permission from copyright holders — to the 300 million blind and visually impaired people around the globe. Only 1 percent of the world’s books are in such a format, according to the World Blind Union.

But the MPAA has been using its considerable clout with Washington officials to press for changes in the accord, warning that loosening copyright protections to help the blind could set a costly precedent.

The motion picture industry, along with counterparts in music and book publishing, say that an international treaty making it easy to bypass copyrights could do far-reaching harm in the digital age. Chipping away at copyright protections is especially dangerous, they say, at a time when it has become all too easy for users to appropriate others’ content. They pointed, for instance, to damage done by Napster, the online music-sharing service that critics say upended the music industry.

Hollywood had already won several battles over treaty provisions. Now, with the final scheduled round of negotiations underway, it is looking for more. The MPAA says the draft remains unacceptable, and it is making a last-minute push to win additional concessions. Advocates for the blind say these changes would essentially gut the agreement.

“They suddenly come out of the woodwork in the eleventh hour, and they’ve risked blowing up the entire negotiation,” said Dan Pescod, vice chairman of the World Blind Union’s campaign for reading rights.

If the differences are not resolved by the scheduled completion of talks on Friday, the treaty will die.

The MPAA has already persuaded the White House to change course on several key provisions and to pressure other countries to do the same, interviews and records show.

Negotiators have dropped language in the treaty pertaining to movies and videos — which, for instance, could have dealt with adding audio to describe the on-screen action or extra-large subtitles for foreign films — and narrowed the focus to books.

At the MPAA’s urging, negotiators have added language called a three-step test. In part, this could bar nonprofit groups from reproducing books in accessible formats if this interferes with a copyright owner’s chance to make money from the books as they would otherwise — for instance, by developing a future market selling to the blind.

However, the MPAA says the protections afforded by the three-step test are still too weak and wants them to be more effective. Hollywood is also strongly resisting language in the draft that mirrors the concept of “fair use,” long embodied in U.S. copyright law. Fair use says that copyright material can be used without permission in certain circumstances, such as for nonprofit educational purposes.

Entertainment industry officials say their impact on the treaty negotiations has been limited.

“If we had such influence, I wouldn’t be so concerned about the course of this treaty,” Marcich said. “I don’t feel like we’ve had any undue influence or disproportionate weight in the process.”

Patrick Ross, a spokesman for the Patent and Trademark Office, said the U.S. delegation has received input from many interested parties, including advocates for the disabled and copyright owners.

The U.S. government has sent mixed signals about whether it wants the fair use provision to remain in the treaty. The State Department sent an email to foreign governments this spring asking them to support deleting the provision.

“Quite frankly, we think that this reference could lead to overly broad exceptions and, in the interests of pragmatism, we think it would be best if we could drop this reference,” said a State Department communication to African governments.

It continued, “Basically we think that removing this fair practices reference will be a big help in getting consensus in the United States to negotiate the final parameters of a binding agreement in Marrakech. Note that we feel sufficiently strongly about this point to raise it with you directly.”