In law school in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Thomas Alieu was smart, determined, and thwarted. "I wanted to become the first blind lawyer in this country," says Alieu, who was blinded by the measles when he was 5. He'd survived the country's decade-long civil war and thrived at university -- he earned a bachelor's degree in history -- but when he got to law school, he couldn't find recordings of his specialized textbooks, and the classmates who had read aloud to him as an undergraduate were too busy to do the same in law school. "I was forced to be a dropout because the materials were not there."
So Alieu founded the Educational Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Freetown, where he runs Sierra Leone's only Braille printing press, a gift seven years ago from the Dutch. The books are expensive, the copies few, and the heavy paper needed to successfully emboss the raised dots of the Braille alphabet is scarce. The center is a bare-bones library, and even today, nothing here would help a guy like Alieu get through law school.
Theoretically, Alieu could use the same texts specially digitized in the United States, or Braille copies printed here and donated and shipped there; Sierra Leone's students study in English, after all. But sharing Braille books across borders is illegal. At least for the moment.
On Monday, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) will decide whether to move forward with a treaty that would finally make it permissible to share accessible texts across borders. The proposed "VIP treaty" (for "visually impaired") would also provide, in effect, the same exception to copyright law that exists in the United States, allowing organizations to copy, in a variety of accessible formats, a copyrighted work without getting permission from or paying a fee to the copyright holder.
That's usually referred to as a copyright "exception," and only a third of all countries have one, according to Dan Pescod, a manager of accessibility campaigns for the Britain's Royal National Institute of the Blind and vice chair of the World Blind Union's Right to Read campaign. The proposed treaty "would get the remaining two-thirds to put into place a national exception, and it would make it legal for us to send accessible books from one country to another."
"Accessible books" includes Braille print copies, but the more important issue is digital files. Specially coded audio books allow the blind to navigate between chapters, bookmark their reading, and otherwise interact with a text as a sighted person might with a print volume. There are also various text-to-speech programs that can adapt a book for a visually impaired reader. All of these are based on digital files that blind resource organizations say would be easy to share with visually impaired readers, if not for the current regulations.
"Let's say the United States produces the book," says Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind. "Canada has to produce their own version; England has to produce their own version; Australia has to produce its own version, even though all of them are producing it in English Braille or an English talking book."
That's no small thing. Take Britain's most lately beloved literary export, Harry Potter. It cost the National Braille Press in Boston roughly $80,000 to set and print one volume of the series, though the work had already been done in other countries. Pescod says the resources his Royal National Institute of the Blind used to duplicate a single Harry Potter text could have paid for another four titles in Braille and another seven accessible audiobooks.
Current copyright regulations are contributing to a global "book famine" for blind or visually impaired readers, who number around 285 million, according to the World Blind Union (WBU). The WBU estimates that less than 1 percent of all titles are available in accessible formats in the developing world, and only 7 percent in the developed world. Only 8,517 books are accessible to the blind in Chile, Columbia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Uruguay combined, according to the WBU, yet Argentina has 63,000 accessible titles and Spain has 102,000. Spanish, of course, is a national language in each of those countries, but current copyright law doesn't permit Spain or Argentina to share its converted texts.
The publishing industry doesn't support the treaty, and so far, the Obama administration appears to be siding with them, if only by omission. "The U.S. has never said no, but they also have never said yes," says Vera Franz, senior at the Open Society Foundation, which supports the treaty.
At previous WIPO meetings, U.S. delegates have pushed for non-binding recommendations, rather than a binding treaty. The European Union long supported that position but reversed itself in November, making the United States a lone but powerful holdout. "If they are not supporting this project, it cannot move forward," Franz says.
This week's conference is the final vote on whether to push ahead with a treaty, which could come to a general vote as early as June. WIPO's consensus-based decision-making means American support would be required to move forward, according to Franz.
The State Department declined to comment on the proposed treaty or Monday's meeting. Justin Hughes, who heads up the American delegate to the proceedings for the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, withheld specifics about the U.S. position but said in an email that "the U.S. is working with many delegations to ensure that Monday's meeting goes smoothly."
Advocates insist anything less than a treaty won't be smooth at all. "If it's some kind of recommendation, it will be seen as much less serious and less likely to be applied to governments across the world," says Pescod. "We haven't worked for many years on this issue to be fobbed off" with a softer agreement.