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."