Appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on June 11, 2013 as Will Canada Back the Rights of the Visually Impaired
New technologies have opened the door to greater access for millions of
people who are visually impaired, yet copyright law frequently stands in
the way. This is particularly true in the developing world, where
digital works are often unavailable due to legal restrictions. On June
17, delegates from around the world will gather in Marrakesh, Morocco
for a diplomatic conference to negotiate the final text on a new United
Nations treaty that is designed to improve access to copyrighted works
for people who are blind or have other perceptual disabilities.
The Treaty for the Visually Impaired, which has been the subject of
years of discussion at the World Intellectual Property Organization,
seeks to address the access problem in two ways.
First, it establishes minimum standards for copyright limitations and
exceptions for the visually impaired. Many developed countries
(including Canada) already have some exceptions, yet standards vary
widely with some rules now too outdated to take full advantage of new
technologies. Moreover, exceptions are frequently missing entirely in
The treaty would address the exception problem by establishing minimum
requirements for all countries. These exceptions include the right to
reproduce or distribute copyrighted works in accessible formats for the
visually impaired. It also includes the right to make changes to a work
to ensure that it is accessible.
Second, the treaty would facilitate the export of accessible works. Most
countries do not permit the export of accessible works on copyright
grounds, leading to wasted expense to make the works accessible in
multiple countries. The end result is that the visually impaired in each
country have access to only a small sliver of the total number of works
that have been made accessible worldwide.
Given the narrow goals of promoting greater access for the visually
impaired, the treaty should seemingly have been relatively
uncontroversial. The early stages of the negotiations, which were based
on a World Blind Union proposal, centred on issues such as the scope of
the treaty (opponents successfully excluded the hearing impaired) and
whether the proposal should be a treaty or a non-binding declaration.
The negotiations led to many compromises, but by last year, the
initiative appeared headed toward a binding treaty that would make a
significant difference in the lives of millions of people.
Over the past few months, however, lobby groups have pressured the U.S.
and European governments to water down the treaty to the point that
groups representing the blind fear it may do more harm than good.
For example, the Motion Picture Association of America has been pushing
for additional limitations on the minimum exception requirements that
would complicate the rules to the point of rendering them virtually
unusable. Moreover, several countries are also promoting a "commercial
availability" requirement that even non-profit groups say would
constrain their ability to make accessible works available to the
The treaty has also lost a provision that would have allowed countries
to use the law to address limitations on access buried within the fine
print of publisher contracts. That provision has now been removed,
opening the door to contracts that effectively trump the rights
established in the treaty.
In fact, the U.S. has also lobbied to undermine a provision on digital
locks that would have allowed the visually impaired to circumvent
technological restrictions in limited circumstances. Canada included
such an exception in its most recent copyright reforms, but the U.S. has
promoted language that is at-odds with current Canadian law.
The Treaty for the Visually Impaired marks a long-overdue effort to
ensure that everyone benefits from emerging technologies that open the
door to greater access of digitized works. The Canadian government has
been largely silent on the treaty, but has a chance later this month to
take a strong stand in favour of the rights of the visually impaired.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and
E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can
reached at email@example.com or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.
TagsShareTuesday June 11, 2013
The concerns about telephone and Internet surveillance moved north yesterday as the Globe revealed that Canada has its own metadata surveillance program. The program was
discontinued in 2008 after concerns that it could involve illegal
surveillance of Canadians, but was secretly restarted in 2011. It is not
clear what change sparked the policy reversal (if there was a reversal - some believe the program was never stopped).
The issue was raised in the House of Commons, but the response from the
government focuses on two claims: (1) that the surveillance does not
target Canadians; and (2) that the data captured is metadata rather than
content and therefore does not raise significant privacy issues.
Neither response should provide Canadians concerned for their privacy
with much comfort as it increasingly apparent that Canada has 20th
century protections in a world of 21st century surveillance.
TagsShareTuesday June 11, 2013
Ariel Katz reports that the University of Toronto has notified
Access Copyright that it will not extend the current licence agreement.
It points to a range of factors - the SCC decisions, copyright reform,
and open access among them - to argue that there should be substantial
reductions in the royalty rate. The university is open to negotiating a
new agreement with that in mind. Meanwhile, Western is adopting much the
same position, notifying Access Copyright that it will not be renewing but leaving the door open to a new agreement with reduced fees.TagsShareTuesday June 11, 2013