Copyright Law Discriminating Against The Blind Finally Struck Down By Court In South Africa

from the about-time dept

Most people would agree that those who are blind or visually impaired deserve all the help they can get. For example, the conversion of printed materials to accessible formats like Braille, large print, or Digitally Accessible Information System (DAISY) formats, ought to be easy. Who could possibly object? For years, many publishers did; and the reason – of course – is copyright. For example, publishers refused to allow Braille and other accessible editions to be shared between different countries:

while the ONCE library in Spain has more than 100,000 titles in accessible formats and Argentina has over 50,000, these titles cannot be shared with the 19 Spanish-speaking countries across Latin America. Similarly, some years ago, charities working in five English-speaking countries, including the Royal National Institute for the Blind in the UK and Vision Australia, were obliged to produce five identical Braille master files for the same Harry Potter book, costing them valuable time and money.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) described the situation back in 2012:

Copyright protections create barriers for people with disabilities, yet big publishers continue to block efforts to create exceptions to remedy the problem even as hundreds of millions of people would stand to benefit worldwide. In the US alone, those with print disabilities represent 30 million people. According to an estimate by the World Health Organization, there are about 285 million visually impaired people in the world, and 90% of those are in the developing world.

Later that same year (2012), negotiations finally began on a treaty laying down copyright exceptions and limitations that would allow those with visual impairments to convert works, and share them internationally. The World Blind Union had some modest aims for the new treaty:

Make it legal for print disabled individuals and specialist organizations to make accessible copies of published works in all countries which sign the treaty;

Make it legal for accessible books to be sent internationally without permission from publishers;

Prevent contracts with publishers from undermining copyright exceptions for print disabled people (currently they sometimes do).

Pretty reasonable, most people would say. But the EFF reported at the time that negotiators were “unable to reach a consensus on many of its most contentious issues, such as allowing exports of adapted works across borders and circumventing technological protection measures to enable accessibility”. In addition, people with hearing disabilities were “written out of the draft“, and US negotiators blocked exceptions and limitations for audiovisual works at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

It took another four years before what came to be known as the Marrakesh Treaty was agreed on and entered into force. Since then, countries around the world have been ratifying the treaty, with greater or lesser degrees of haste. One nation that has still not yet ratified the Marrakesh Treaty is South Africa. The reason given was that the country’s main Copyright Act, from 1978, prevented the government from doing so. Happily, that obstacle has finally been removed, reported here by the Oxford Human Rights Hub:

After hearing arguments from the amici on important issues of the rights of all people to freely impart and receive information and the interpretation of South Africa’s existing obligations under international human rights law and copyright law, the Pretoria High Court held that the Copyright Act is unconstitutional to the extent that it unfairly discriminates against people living with visual and print disabilities as it effectively prevents them from accessing materials under copyright.

It’s simply scandalous that in 2021 the visually impaired still need to fight in this way for their basic rights to “freely impart and receive information”. Once again, it is outdated copyright law that is to blame – together with the selfishness of publishers who view their rights to exclude people from knowledge as more important than those of the blind to access it.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

Story originally posted to the excellent new Walled Culture website.

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Comments on “Copyright Law Discriminating Against The Blind Finally Struck Down By Court In South Africa”

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PaulT (profile) says:

So, to summarise:

Print publishing industry: "we’re losing lots of money to piracy, we need to have strong copyright and odious DRM to fight this!"

Also print publishing industry: "we will use copyright to block 285 million potential customers (many of whom are a new market because the visually impaired can’t read our pre-digital books), and ensure that they have no other choice than piracy!"

Nice to see movement being made in this area, but it’s sad to see the same story over and over again with news technology. Companies will attack and cripple their own customers’ ability to buy and use their products until legal action drags them kicking and screaming toward common sense (and, ultimately, profit).

Anonymous Coward says:

Same shit is happening with subtitles for the deaf, and it’s still ongoing. If you make your own subtitles for a copyrighted video and distribute them without express permission from the video copyright holders, depends on where you are, you can go to jail for it. No subtitles forthcoming from the video copyright holders and no forthcoming permission from them for others to create subtitles? Too bad as to access for the deaf, law says, depends on where you are as access for the Deaf is not considered "fair use".

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Not just for the deaf. If you watch movies in different languages, copyright adherence often means that you only get a small selection of subtitles rather than the ones that the end user actually want. It’s a crapshoot for some distributors as to whether the subtitle track you want is available, be that you wanting to watch a movie in its original language with subtitles for your native language, or subtitles for the movie in a language you’re trying to learn.

Some services are better than others, but half the time if I ask why I can’t get a certain subtitle combination, the answer is usually that they haven’t licensed them for where you’re trying to access the content from. Then, of course, there’s wailing and moaning about "piracy" when you try getting the subtitles for your legally purchased/rented copy through some other means.

I feel for the people who need the subtitles as their only option, but it’s yet another example of where an industry’s attempts to "protect" itself against "piracy" is actually them rejecting people offering to pay them and demonising its own customers.

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Anonymous Coward says:

it obviously isn’t just publishers but every branch of the entertainment industries that are able to show blatent discrimination against those who are disabled, some in more ways than one! the movie industry don’t make subtitles available for those who cannot hear but then discriminate against those people further by forcing them to pay the same for video media, even though the people cannot hear. the lack of subtitles enhancing that discrimination against the deaf andhard of hearing. this shows that getting money out of people far exceeds the desire for people to be able to enjoy the content of the videos.
people who are blind or partially sighted are equally discriminated against because they cant see the video content but are still forced to pay full price even though they can only hear what’s happening, not see anything.
the music industry are the same. they refuse to allow those who cannot hear to read the lyrics but still expect people to pay full price for music that perhaps can be recognised only through vibrations.
i dont think there is a nation that is so discriminatory towards the disabled as the USA and no industry as discriminatory as those in the Entertainment Industries! what makes things worse is that when independent people or groups of people try to help the disabled, they get hauled into court, told to ‘cease and desist’ what they are doing to helpthose disabled people and then get massive fines or thrown into jail! if these are not examples of selfish, serf-serving behavior, i dont know what are. the whole of the entertainment industry, every single section, should be ashamed and congress need to drastically change the copyright laws as soon as possible! even the length of terms are designed to discriminate as much as possible but also for as long as possible, but against everyone! so much for “promote the progress of science and useful arts”, when it has only been used as a tool to ensure those with copyright, as happens so often now, have a means of discriminating and seriously punishing people, while continually getting something for doing nothing, because old and/or long dead relatives did all the work decades or even centuries ago! absolutely disgraceful!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I agree. I think we should abolish digital copyright. Why all that much taking away from the mass just to create an alleged "social good" that only apparently benefits so little at so much cost from the mass? where is the real world evidence justifying all that copyright policies that show the policies gives more to society in whole than they take away from society in whole? or is it just all political ideology? Is it so necessary that we all have to sacrifice much freedom for the few, pay all that law enforcement for the few so they can have their stupid monopolies? Courts, judges, lawyers, moderators, and whatnot, why do we all have to pay for them instead of the monopolyists? Why do they have to pay so little for their monopolies? Why do we have to criminalize and throw people in jail and pay for their incarceration so the monopolists have more money? Is it so necessary that we have to lock up our culture for 70 years plus artist lifetime so that just a few monopolists benefit?
Just lets put end to this morally bankrupt Copyright regime and save all that economic wealth going to waste into pockets of lawyers and entertainment moguls and whatever other leeches and steer it into more socially productive enterprises that go further in promoting science and technology (or at least dont hinder) and that don’t take away so much from the people for some illusionary and alleged "social good" that we have yet to see real evidence for.

Anonymous Coward says:

No automation?

produce five identical Braille master files for the same Harry Potter book, costing them valuable time and money.

Is this done manually, or what? Can’t they just download an epub from Library Genesis and run an automated text-to-braille conversion? The article doesn’t really say anything about the process.

(Yes, I know 90% of the Harry Potter files there have grievous errors like "Sinus Black", and the UK and US editions are haphazardly comingled. Too bad they don’t allow anonymous reporting of bad versions. But it would only take a few hours to download them all, convert to text, spellcheck and grep for errors, then report the "best version" md5sums to the international agencies.)

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