Feature

Closed Book

Why won't the Obama administration back a treaty to make reading more accessible for the visually impaired?

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.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) opposes the current language of the proposed treaty. "In the view of the publishing community, [the treaty's terms] need more work.  They're really not ready for prime time," says Allan Adler, AAP's general counsel and vice-president of government affairs.

Adler argues that countries are capable of passing their own copyright exceptions nationally. After all, the treaty is modeled on the Chafee amendment, a 1996 U.S. bill, which Adler helped craft and lobby for, that created the exception in the United States. But his bigger concern, he says, is the nature of the treaty.  "This will be the first of its kind that sets forth limitations and exceptions on the rights of copyright owners without also setting forth the rights of the copyright owners," he says.

The AAP fears such a precedent because of what might come next. WIPO members are having ongoing conversations about copyright exceptions for libraries and archives, for example, and a draft treaty for broader use without pay and across borders is already in circulation. A similar conversation is happening at WIPO about educational materials and learning institutions. AAP fears the VIP treaty could be the beginning of an all-out assault on intellectual property.

Publishers are also concerned, of course, about piracy. But Jim Fruchterman, founder of Bookshare, a free library for the visually impaired, says his experience doesn't bear that fear out. "Bookshare right now has 220,000 members -- probably more, it's growing all the time -- and in the last year, they downloaded more than 1 million books," he says. "In the average year, we find 10 books from Bookshare on the Internet."

Fruchterman sat on the expert panel that helped the World Blind Union draft the first version of the treaty, and Bookshare's parent non-profit organization, Benetech, is an official observer of the WIPO committee that put the VIP treaty forward.

Like many publishers, Bookshare scans the Internet for unauthorized distribution of its titles. It also encodes its titles with the borrower's name and a unique, hidden digital stamp, so that Bookshare can trace the leaked title to the borrower. "In nine of 10 instances, we find have name of the user who downloaded book still in the file," he says. "Does that say pirates to you? Or does that say, ‘I have no idea how the Internet works, and I put it on a school website that Google could index.'"

Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, says passing a treaty could actually reduce the risk of piracy. "We're not any more interested in piracy than the publishers are," she says. "But when people don't have books, they're more apt to pirate than when they do."

There is one way around the prohibition against sharing, and that's to get the permission of the publisher. Fruchterman has done that (in coordination with the AAP) with about half of the 170,000 titles available at Bookshare, but it can be more difficult in countries where copyright works differently. Bookshare hasn't found a single publisher willing to cooperate in France, where copyright law is among the strictest in the world.

But if the legal arrangements were in place, the technology exists to transform reading for the visually impaired in the developing world at very little cost. Bookshare "could do all of sub-Saharan Africa for $1 million a year," says Fruchterman. "That's because we're delivering those services to U.S. for $7 or $8 million a year, and on the margin it doesn't cost me that much more to serve the rest of the world. We have the economics of Amazon.com."

In the meantime, the developing world has to make do with what richer countries are legally allowed to donate. "We get letters from people all the time saying, ‘I'm trying to learn Braille, I live in Kenya, and I can't get enough to read, can you send me anything?'" Brunson says. "And all we can send them is copies of our own magazine."

Feature

Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

Live on TV: The Fall of Greece
Chris Heath • GQ

On the clip that captured a society falling apart.

Then, far to the moderator's left, an animated blonde woman says something that clearly riles a short-haired young man on the opposite end. This lurch -- from heated debate to something much crazier -- happens in a flash. The short-haired man picks up his glass of water and, rising to his feet, throws its contents in the blonde woman's face. It's a direct hit. She seems to freeze, but after that it's all so fast, so frantic. A dark-haired older woman, sitting between the water-thrower and the moderator, gets up from her chair and jabs the aggressor with her newspaper. The short-haired man lunges toward her, then swings violently at her. A right, a left, a right. Each time, he connects. You can't believe how fast he moves, how hard he hits. Then the screen goes blank. The clip is from a popular Greek morning TV show that was broadcast live on June 7, 2012, ten days before Greece's second election of the year amid the ongoing economic turmoil. The three key participants are all members of the Greek Parliament.

ANTENNA TV/AFP/GettyImages

Welcome to the Hotel of Doom
Simon Parry • Daily Mail

A visit to the hotel North Korea starved to build, still unfinished after breaking ground in 1987.

This is the behemoth I have come to see -- a colossal monument to the insanity of North Korea. The 1,082ft-high Ryugyong Hotel is due to open next summer, an astonishing 24 years behind schedule. I was determined to be the first foreign visitor to set foot inside. Work actually began in 1987 under the regime of Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, and was meant to open two years later as a calculated snub to neighbouring South Korea. As Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics, North Korea would open what would then have been the world’s tallest hotel. The structure of the mighty pyramid was quickly completed, but work came to a shuddering halt in 1992 after the collapse of Pyongyang’s benefactor, the Soviet Union. It was an economic disaster for North Korea and provoked a devastating famine that killed up to 3.5 million people.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

General Principles
Dexter Filkins • The New Yorker

How good was David Petraeus?

In recent years, the most esteemed officer in America -- the very model of the modern general -- was David Petraeus, whose public image combined the theorizing of the new school with a patina of old-fashioned toughness and rectitude. Before a sex scandal forced him to step down as the director of the C.I.A., a few weeks ago, he was widely regarded by politicians and journalists as a brilliant thinker and leader, the man who saved America in Iraq and might work a similar miracle in Afghanistan. Roger Ailes suggested, perhaps less than half in jest, that Petraeus run for President. Now many of the same people are calling into question not just his ethics but his basic ideas and achievements. History often forgives military leaders for small scandals, if they are successful enough. Eisenhower’s long-alleged affair with Kay Summersby has not much tarnished his reputation as an officer; even Hood, whose late campaigns were disastrous, is remembered as a paragon of bravery, if not of good planning. Will Petraeus be thought of, in time, as a hero guilty of no more than a distracting foible? Or as the general most responsible for two disastrous wars?

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls
Amal Hanano • Foreign Policy

An elegy for Aleppo.

Watching death has become a pastime of the revolution. There is much to learn from it. Death is sudden; it is shorter than a short YouTube clip. Death is a man wrapped in his shroud, bloodied gauze strips tied around his head, cotton stuffed in his nostrils, and the bluish-gray tinge of his skin. Death is the camera panning over mass graves where children's bodies are arranged in long, perfect lines, then covered with rust-colored dirt. The death of Syrians accumulated so fast it seems impossible to comprehend over 40,000 lives lost in less than two years. But the death of a city is different. It is slow -- each neighborhood's death is documented bomb by bomb, shell by shell, stone by fallen stone. Witnessing the deaths of your cities is unbearable. Unlike the news of dead people -- which arrives too late, always after the fact -- the death of a city seems as if it can be halted, that the city can be saved from the clutches of destruction. But it is an illusion: The once-vibrant cities cannot be saved, so you watch, helpless, as they become ruins.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages

Understanding Mohamed Morsi
Joshua Hammer • The New Republic

On the origin and motivations of the most powerful man in the Middle East.

Sometimes, Morsi can seem like the inspiring guardian of Egyptian democracy -- such as when he courageously dismissed the military junta that had claimed the right to rule post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt. At other times, he can seem like a mouthpiece for the deeply conservative Muslim Brotherhood -- declaring women unfit for high office and advocating for an international law to ban religious insults. (And sometimes he simply seems awkward, such as when he sat down for a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard in September at the United Nations and proceeded, for several excruciating seconds, to publicly adjust his genitals.) So far, the only certainty about Morsi is that his ultimate intentions remain unknown.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/GettyImages