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    The "Miracle in Marrakesh" Provides a New Path for Digital Access

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    Wednesday July 17, 2013
    Negotiators from around the world gathered in Marrekesh, Morocco late last month for a diplomatic conference aimed at concluding a new United Nations treaty to improve access to copyrighted works for people who are blind or have other perceptual disabilities. Despite years of discussions, there was ample reason for pessimism.

    My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the treaty talks had become bogged down in the months leading up to the conference, with large lobby groups such as the Motion Picture Association working feverishly behind the scenes to undermine it through changes to rules on digital locks and fair use.

    As the deadline approached however, the majority of the world lined up behind user rights for the blind. With Canada playing an important facilitative role, the negotiators were ultimately able to craft compromise language that resulted in a new landmark treaty. More than 50 countries immediately signed on, suggesting that the treaty is well on its way to establishing new rights for the blind (20 countries must ratify it before the treaty formally takes effect).


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    The "Miracle in Marrakesh" Provides a New Path for Digital Access

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    Wednesday July 17, 2013
    Appeared in the Toronto Star on July 13, 2013 as The "Miracle in Marrakesh" Provides a New Path for Digital Access

    Negotiators from around the world gathered in Marrekesh, Morocco late last month for a diplomatic conference aimed at concluding a new United Nations treaty to improve access to copyrighted works for people who are blind or have other perceptual disabilities. Despite years of discussions, there was ample reason for pessimism.

    The treaty talks had become bogged down in the months leading up to the conference, with large lobby groups such as the Motion Picture Association working feverishly behind the scenes to undermine it through changes to rules on digital locks and fair use.

    As the deadline approached however, the majority of the world lined up behind user rights for the blind. With Canada playing an important facilitative role, the negotiators were ultimately able to craft compromise language that resulted in a new landmark treaty. More than 50 countries immediately signed on, suggesting that the treaty is well on its way to establishing new rights for the blind (20 countries must ratify it before the treaty formally takes effect).

    The treaty will first and foremost open the door to export of accessible works, thereby greatly expanding materials available to the more than 300 million blind and visually impaired people around the world. Moreover, it will ensure that digital locks do not impede access, since it allows for the removal of technological restrictions on electronic books for the benefit of the blind and visually impaired.

    Beyond the substantive benefits, the treaty is rightly characterized as the "miracle in Marrakesh" as it is the first international copyright treaty to focus on user interests. Its origins start with the emergence of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Development Agenda, an effort by developing countries and civil society groups to bring some balance to global intellectual property policy.

    Established in 2004, it pushed WIPO to consider both improved protections of intellectual property in tandem with enhanced user rights. The treaty for the blind and visually impaired was one of the first major development agenda initiatives, despite facing significant opposition from publishers and some governments, who argued that a treaty was unnecessary.

    With the first user rights treaty now in hand, WIPO may now turn its attention to other groups who may benefit from similar rights. In fact, there are proposals in development focused on libraries and education, two sectors where copyright exceptions are well established on public policy grounds, but which could be strengthened through minimum international law requirements.

    The negotiating process behind the treaty for the blind is also instructive as it was far more open and transparent than comparable negotiations. The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement and the Canada - European Union Trade Agreement both feature sizable intellectual property chapters, yet unlike the secrecy associated with those talks, the WIPO treaty negotiations featured regular public releases of draft texts and opportunities for interventions from groups on all sides of the issue, including publishers and groups representing the blind.

    While the final language was crafted behind closed doors, the successful conclusion of the treaty demonstrated that greater transparency can help international negotiations by fostering consensus on difficult issues and creating feedback mechanisms that result in broader support for the final agreement.

    From a Canadian perspective, the next step will be for the government to sign the treaty and address any potential domestic legal reforms necessary for ratification. Canadian law already includes several copyright provisions designed to facilitate access for the blind and visually impaired, so major changes to the law are unlikely.

    Instead, the government should consider including any necessary reforms within Bill C-56, its copyright, counterfeiting, and trademark bill that is still at an early stage in the parliamentary process. Moving quickly would send a strong signal of support for the blind and demonstrate Canadian leadership on the world’s first copyright treaty focused on user rights.

    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 mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.


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    "The Miracle in Marrakesh": Agreement Reached on a Treaty for the Visually Impaired

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    Thursday June 27, 2013
    After years of discussions and repeated efforts to thwart or water down a treaty for the visually impaired, delegates in Morocco reached agreement late Tuesday on a treaty. A draft of the text is available here.
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    The Motion Picture Association's Fight Against a Treaty to Support the Visually Impaired

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    Monday June 24, 2013
    Earlier this month, I wrote about a diplomatic conference in Morocco designed to finalize a much-needed copyright treaty for the visually impaired. The column noted that the treaty seeks to do two things: first, it establishes minimum standards for copyright limitations and exceptions for the visually impaired. Second, the treaty would facilitate the export of accessible works.

    The conference is now in its second week with growing fears that there will be no deal. The major hold-out appears to be the United States, which is blocking consensus on a range of issues. According to documents released over the weekend, the primary source of the U.S. opposition comes from the motion picture association, which has engaged in months of behind-the-scenes lobbying designed to dismantle the treaty.  For example, the MPA is trying to block the inclusion of a fair use/fair dealing provision, despite the fact that many countries (led by the U.S.) already have such a rule.



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