Act now to sign, ratify Visually Impaired Persons Treaty
By Muhammad Majid Bashir
One might not forget the incident of beating and misleading by the Punjab police in Lahore of a crowd of visually impaired protesters who wanted to meet the Governor to present their demands. This Punjab police made hat-trick of such inhuman treatment with the blind protesters during December 2014 and December 2016. Unfortunately, beating and cheating of the blind continued despite estimated 0.9% of visually impaired people in Pakistan that need special care and attention both by the government and the society.
In Pakistan, this population do not have access to proper facilities, especially health and education as any other citizen of the country does. They have special needs for their education- reading books and producing texts. If not provided with appropriate education facilities, we are pushing such a huge population into ignorance, poverty and further depression, causing among them the pain of being dependent upon others. According to the World Blind Union, among millions of books produced every year in the world, only up to 7% are of use of 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world. Over 90 percent of these live in low-income settings in developing countries.
The World Intellectual Property Organization –WIPO in Morocco (2013) had opened debate to facilitate Access to publish Work for visually impaired persons (VIP) and persons with print disabilities through the Marrakesh Treaty 2013. The treaty seeks to alleviate the book famine which excludes million of visually impaired persons from access to the bulk of the world’s published works. It also provides for the exchange of these accessible format works across borders by organizations that serve the blind, visually impaired or print disabled.
The treaty’s single objective to increase access to books, magazines and other printed materials for people with print disabilities and its aim to achieve this by giving incentives to member states by making it easier for organizations to share work in accessible formats with their foreign counterparts and eliminating duplication, improving efficiently and reducing costs of production in the process. Instead of multiple countries producing accessible copies of the same work, each country will be able to produce a different work in accessible formats which can then be shared with other countries. This treaty also addresses the book famine for the VIP by requiring its contracting parties to adopt national laws’ provisions that permit the reproduction, distribution and making available of published works in accessible formats through limitations and exceptions to the right of copyrights holders. It allows the waiver of copyright restrictions for books to be available in the formats such as Braille, large print test and audio books.
Upon adopting the Marrakesh Treaty, Pakistan, as per Article 4, shall be required to create one or more limitations or exceptions to copyright law. These limitations and exceptions shall mean that a range of acts may be permitted without infringing copyright. These permitted acts shall serve the interests of the people called beneficiaries in the Treaty. Beneficiaries, according to Article 3, include anyone who is print disabled – including anyone who has difficulty reading printed material because they are blind or visually impaired, or because of another physical disability that doesn’t allow them to read. Under such limitations or exceptions, any work can be copied to convert it into an accessible format. Like the term “beneficiary”, the terms “work” and “accessible format” are defined quite broadly in the Treaty.
The treaty re-emphasizes the principles stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). It reiterates the principles of non-discrimination, equal opportunity, accessibility and effective participation in the society.
Pakistan is member of Berne Conventions, the first International Copyright treaty on the protection of literary and Artistic works which recognizes the need to balance the rights of authors of creative works and special provisions (known as limitation and exceptions) that are in the public interest. The Bern Convention and subsequent copyright treaties includes these special provisions that allow for some uses of copyrighted material without authorization from the right holder. Pakistan under its Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) regime has certain provisions of laws in Copyright Ordinance 1962 to adopt these special provisions of Marrakesh Treaty. Pakistan, with minor amendments in its Copyright Ordinance while defining “adaption” of works in Section 2, can mention the visually impaired persons; and sections 14, 54 and 57 may also help us adopt this treaty to make a huge difference in the lives of millions of blinds and print disabled persons.
Currently, no legislation exists which safeguards the right of persons with disabilities or provides them access to resources which can motivate them to be involved in the society and can enhance their freedom to seek, receive and impart information. If Pakistan signs this treaty, that would be another important step for Pakistan after UNCRPD to not only enhance the scope for protection of the rights of a group of persons with disabilities but also to provide them access to published work including audio books as well as text, notation and related illustration including digital that enables a beneficiary to read or access the content as feasibly and comfortably as someone who is not print disabled. Accessible format copies, defined in Article 2(b), may only be used by beneficiaries under the Treaty in their own country from around the world without any limitations.
This treaty focuses and accesses information by the visually impaired or blind persons for the purpose of education or research. The visually impaired and blind persons in Pakistan shall nonetheless benefit from having an access to such formatted copies and this shall in return help in the development of the country.
Intellectual Property Organization-IPO, Ministry of the Law and Foreign affairs should jointly make necessary arrangements for signing and ratification of this treaty. Right now, the Ministry of Education has to take some administrative and financial initiatives to understand the modalities and technical now how of these accessible formats, so the installation process of these formats should not take much time. This treaty will definitely open a world of possibilities for our educational organizations such as National Institute of Special Education to make books accessible and share them with other institutes and public libraries in the county. Even in county such as Pakistan, where the print disabled community has hardly access of this facility by virtue of this treaty, visually impaired people will be able to receive many more accessible format titles at the click of button.
As the experience goes, Pakistan has ratified many international Conventions on Human rights and Child rights in the past. This sense of responsibility and mindset of a democratic state, Pakistan’s position and stance would be highly appreciated globally and locally. Not ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty puts Pakistan in grave violation of Human Rights conventions and Constitutional principles which demand the equality of citizens and a full access to education. By implementing the Marrakesh Treaty, Pakistan can improve the education and life-chances of many of its citizens, implement the principles of international human rights law and stimulate economic development and social progress. The time is now to act.
(The author is a former Judge, lawyer and the Founding President of Centre for Rule of Law Pakistan and a National Consultant of WIPO)