We've covered the efforts by many people over a very, very long period of time to set up a special treaty to help the blind and people who have other reading disabilities have greater access to works that may be covered by copyright. While the US administration rushes through things like ACTA and TPP, it has slow rolled this particular treaty -- bouncing back and forth between supporting such a treaty and not supporting it. Part of this issue, it appears, is that some of the key people in the Obama administration who recognized the value of such an agreement left, and the people who took over are known for their extreme maximalist positions. And, the concern with creating this treaty is that (*gasp*) it might open the door to governments giving people back their rights to make use of products they own.
So it took some people by surprise that the US showed up at the latest WIPO meeting apparently ready to support an agreement. Of course, the devil is in the details and the details showed that the US still didn't want anyone to call the thing a treaty, even as everyone else wants it to be a treaty. The US is also acting very tentatively on this, making it clear that it wants "final review" of the text, and that it might walk away if big copyright holders protest they don't like what they see. After some pressure from just about everyone else, the US has agreed that it will at least show up for discussions on making the agreement an actual treaty -- and that's quite reasonably being seen as progress.
The actual conference to discuss all of this will be held in June, and between now and then, expect all sorts of posturing (mostly by the US) in which they try to limit what's in the agreement and water it down as much as possible. The end result is unlikely to be particularly interesting. It's likely to be very limited and carve out all sorts of things (for example, it will only apply to text, rather than "audio-visual" works -- because, apparently, the MPAA has no interest in making its products more accessible). Having seen all of the scheming and roadblocks US officials have put up over the years concerning what should be a fairly straightforward agreement to help people who are disabled access more content, I'm not particularly hopeful anything useful will come out of this process in the end. But, the big copyright industry can rest easy at night knowing that blind people won't be able to access their materials.
We already talked about how US officials have been working against a treaty to allow more access to copyrighted works for the disabled, but the latest report from Jamie Love highlights an even more nefarious part of the strategy. To hold the agreement hostage in order to backdoor in certain elements of ACTA/SOPA. This is mainly being led by the EU, but with support from the US. And the main part is putting lots of red tape around any exceptions -- and tying it to more standardized enforcement, which is what ACTA was really all about:
The European Union primarily, but with some backing from the US government, is holding blind people's access hostage in and effort to introduce new global enforcement norms for copyright. If you look at most copyright exceptions in most countries, the system works as follows. If the exception applies, an activity is not considered infringement. If you do something that is not protected by the exception, you are infringing, and all sorts of bad things can happen, depending upon your national laws for infringement, which include both criminal and civil sanctions. That is how the US exceptions work for blind persons, and that's how nearly all national exceptions work for blind persons. But here at WIPO, the EU wants page after page of detailed regulation of anyone who uses an exception. The expanding verbiage of the agreement is almost entirely about introducing ACTA and SOPA like enforcement provisions into this agreement.
We've already seen the EU try to backdoor ACTA provisions in elsewhere, so it should come as little surprise that it would also seek to abuse a treaty to help the disabled to get to the same point as well. Shameful, but not surprising.
Another report on the meetings, from David Hammerstein at the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) goes into more detail on the EU's moves during the negotiations:
Instead of trying to help one of the worldÂ´s most culturally disadvantaged groups the EUÂ´s copyright specialists guided by Commissioner of Internal Market Michel Barnier are busy launching violent preemptive strikes against the possibility of a clear, exception to copyright for the non-profit production and distribution of works formatted for visually impaired persons.
In Geneva this week the EU made one negative proposal after another to block a global agreement that would greatly improve access to culture for the visually impaired. All of them have been rejected by the organizations defending blind and disabled persons rights. Most of them are “copy and paste” proposals from the publishing industryÂ´s wish list. Not one EU proposal this week in Geneva was to facilitate the right to read of disabled persons as guaranteed by international law. Not one member of the EUÂ´s delegation was a human rights or disability expert; all were hard-line copyright apologists.
Basically, they seem to see this as a war, where any exception is seen as "giving in" on copyright. This is insane. This is not about rational minds looking for the proper calibration of the law, or understanding the real impacts of the law. This appears to be about pure copyright religion, where "more" must be better, and any exception, no matter how reasonable, is seen as a sin. Shameful.
We've talked a few times about how the US seems to be leading the charge to block a treaty that would increase the ability of blind and other disabled people to get around copyright restrictions to access certain works. The treaty has been in negotiations for ages -- and the US position has, at times, flip-flopped. However, now it seems firmly aligned with copyright maximalist lobbyists. The latest report from the negotiations is that publishers and the movie studios have convinced US negotiators to push back on this treaty:
The United State is playing a big major role, and led by David Kappos' USPTO, generally is aligned with the publishers in efforts to narrow the agreement and limit its benefits to persons with disabilities, and is increasingly isolated in its opposition to a decision that the nature of the "instrument" will be a treaty rather than a softer non-blinding recommendation or model law. One major objective of the US delegation is to exclude persons who are deaf. Another is to limit the exceptions to text, and exclude any audiovisual content or related rights. Both of these negotiating objectives are designed to keep the U.S. movie and television industry happy. The U.S. has also been seeking ways to support other publisher friendly provisions, even when they run counter to the robust exceptions found in U.S. law.
Siding with big studios and publishers over the best interests of the blind and the deaf? How nice...
Most of us take vision for granted, but about 21.5 million adult Americans have trouble seeing, even with glasses or other vision aids. The leading causes of blindness or low vision in the US are age-related eye diseases, and many of the treatments are in fairly early stages of research and development. It's not easy to replicate the functions of a retina, but here are just a few projects that are working on ways to restore vision with some interesting technologies.
Visually impaired folks have access to more technology than ever before. Despite various setbacks that prevent some ingenious innovations, plenty of developers are still working on hardware and software tools to help out people with disabilities. Here are just a few examples of some interesting projects for the blind.
Last week, we wrote about how the US was holding up a treaty to help visually impaired people be able to access more works, in large part because publishers are somehow offended that the public might want to take back some of their fair use rights (which the publishers unfortunately claim is "taking away" something from them). As more and more details come out, it's become clear that while most of the countries involved in the negotiations really want this treaty -- which has been in discussion for nearly 20 years -- to be put in place, there are two major stumbling blocks: the EU Commission and the US. Not surprisingly, these were the two biggest supporters of ACTA as well. As with ACTA, the EU Parliament is at odds with the EU Commission on this and is in support of a treaty, but the Commission is trying to put all sorts of "unreasonable restrictions" on the agreement, and the US is still fighting against the idea of calling this a "treaty."
This is really kicking the can down the road -- in this case, past Obama's first term in office. After four years, Obama can't overcome opposition from a handful of mostly foreign owned publishers to support a treaty for blind people. In many respects, this is a money in politics story. If blind people were financing his campaign, they would have had a treaty a year ago. The Obama administration wants the decision on the treaty delayed until the election so it will not interfere with its campaign fundraising from publishers, and so it will not suffer bad publicity for opposing the treaty, before the election.
The whole thing is pretty shameful, and yet another display of how money corrupts politics... and how copyright helps in that process.
Digital cameras are getting better all the time, but our natural vision only seems to degrade over time. (Almost everyone over forty years old will suffer from some kind of presbyopia.) There may be technological solutions to improving human vision, but so far, projects like Google Glass are more about augmenting vision, not necessarily improving a user's sight. Here are just a few interesting projects working on useful eye prosthetic devices.
Language matters. In debates we see over copyright and other issues, it's often amazing how the industry has really twisted the language to their advantage. A few years ago, Bill Patry wrote an excellent book all about how the entertainment industry inserted its preferred language into all of the debates over copyright, such that they can claim the moral high ground on an issue that is really a business model/economic one for the most part. Of course, those of us pushing for fixing problems in copyright law unfortunately sometimes fall into the same traps. Just recently, for example, we talked about how we should stop calling things "orphan works," and more accurately describe them as they are: hostage works.
I was thinking about this while watching Jamie Love's recent interview with Alan Adler, the VP of Legal & Gov't Affairs for the Association of American Publishers. We already discussed the substance of the discussion around various international agreements for "limitations and exceptions" to copyright law. "Limitations and exceptions" has been standard terminology for things like fair use, fair dealing and other "valves" to stop copyright from being completely oppressive. However, as I watched Adler, some of his comments around those things bothered me. You can watch it below, but I'll call out a few quotes:
"For publishers, they really don't have a business, unless they own intellectual property assets, that they're able to use, control and exploit in the marketplace. So the threat of piracy and the threat of restrictions, limitations, exception to their rights as copyright owners is always a concern to them, because it effects the way they do business. The WIPO is now looking at creating international instruments addressing a number of different things -- but all of them have one thing in common: they would cut back on the rights of publishers as copyright owners by introducing new limitations and exception to those rights..."
"Interestingly, our interest and concern about whether it's a treaty or some other form of international agreement, probably would not have been much of a problem if we were only working on the issue of print disabilities. But with the effort to develop supposed proposed treaties on limitations and exceptions for educational uses and also a separate effort moving parallel to this, to develop a similar treaty on limitations and exceptions for uses by libraries and archives. The problem we have in the area of print disabilities is we really don't want to establish a precedent of developing a series of treaties that specifically focus on trying to set forth minimal limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright owners. Up until this proposal with respect to print disabilities, generally the treaties and other international agreements that have been devised by the WIPO have been to establish the minimal rights of copyright owners -- not the limitations and exceptions to those rights. And the notion that now, because of the concerns of developing countries and some of the agreements that have been made to pursue an agenda of issues that are of concern to developing countries, we're now beginning to focus on limitations and exceptions."
I have to admit that it's somewhat refreshing that Adler comes right out and says this honestly: that the companies he represents are worried that it might change their business models, rather than making any kind of unsupported moral claims or suggestions that these "limitations and exceptions" are somehow going to destroy content.
That said -- and this comes through strongly in that second quote above -- it's a bit disturbing the way he seems to think that the only thing at issue is the rights of copyright holders, and the way he only describes limitations and exceptions in terms of how they take away rights from the copyright holders. That's incredibly misleading. These "limitations and exceptions" with things like fair use are actually rights of the public. Copyright has always been a restriction on the rights of the public. We can argue over whether or not it's a reasonable or appropriate restriction, but that's what it is. When we flip the language and call things like fair use -- which give back some rights to the public -- "limitations and exceptions," we're unfortunately playing into the language framing of copyright holders, and allowing Adler to say things like he does above and have them sound marginally reasonable.
Yet, if you changed around what he said to make it more accurate by noting that these limitations and exceptions are really about increasing the rights of the public, you begin to realize that what he's saying is pretty crazy:
"For publishers, they really don't have a business, unless they hold government-granted monopoly privileges, that they're able to use, control and exploit in the marketplace. So the threat of infringement and the threat of the public regaining some of their own rights is always a concern to them, because it effects the way they do business. The WIPO is now looking at creating international instruments addressing a number of different things -- but all of them have one thing in common: they would increase the rights of the public by restoring their ability to make use of those works...
"Interestingly, our interest and concern about whether it's a treaty or some other form of international agreement, probably would not have been much of a problem if we were only working on the issue of print disabilities. But with the effort to develop supposed proposed treaties on the public's rights to use works for educational uses and also a separate effort moving parallel to this, to develop a similar treaty on the public's right for uses by libraries and archives. The problem we have in the area of print disabilities is we really don't want to establish a precedent of developing a series of treaties that specifically focus on trying to set forth expanded rights for the public. Up until this proposal with respect to print disabilities, generally the treaties and other international agreements that have been devised by the WIPO have been to take away and limit the rights of the public -- not to expand and clarify those rights. And the notion that now, because of the concerns of developing countries and some of the agreements that have been made to pursue an agenda of issues that are of concern to developing countries, we're now beginning to focus on the rights of the public."
That is a lot more accurate version of what he's saying when you realize the nature of what's really being discussed. So even as we're happy that at least there's been a lot more talk of "limitations & exceptions" (even by the USTR in the TPP negotiations), it seems wrong to cede the framing of the discussion to special interest industry folks. These aren't "limitations and exceptions," they're the public's right to access, to create and to express themselves.
We've been talking about ACTA and TPP and the ridiculous levels of secrecy around them for a while now, but the US's overly secret policies are showing up in other treaty issues as well. For years, we've been talking about negotiations at WIPO to create a treaty that would provide specific exceptions to copyright law to help the blind get access to works in formats they could read (basically, it would make it so the blind could more easily import braille and other versions that are readable for the visually impaired from other countries). This issue has been out there forever. And while we always hear how important it is that US negotiators rush to get deals like ACTA and TPP done, they've dragged their heels on the treaty for the blind for ages. At the urging of copyright holders, the Obama administration came out against such a treaty a few years ago. And the EU Commission has been against such a treaty for a while as well, claiming that it's just too hard to put in place. Yeah, rush through things like ACTA and TPP... but helping the blind get access to works? That's just too hard...
Over at WIPO, the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) conference is ongoing, and one of the agenda items is this treaty for the blind. One of the key points that have held up negotiations is whether or not this should really be a "treaty." As I understand it, copyright maximalists are scared silly of creating an actual treaty that is focused on "exceptions and limitations," because that might make people realize that exceptions and limitations are a thing they can create whole treaties around... and thus we'd start seeing a lot more of that.
And, in fact, on the agenda at SCCR are two other potential agreements (which are much newer) discussing the possibility of exceptions and limitations in two other areas: education and libraries. As this video, shot by Jamie Love at KEI of Alan Adler, the VP of the Association of American Publishers, shows, he's against these kinds of treaties because the publishers believe that exceptions and limitations are an attack on their rights, and they don't want to support that kind of thing.
What's really disturbing, however, is that despite years and years of work on a treaty for exceptions for the blind, and despite the public's reaction to secret negotiations in the likes of SOPA, ACTA and TPP... the US so far has been keeping the text of what's being discussed a secret. Jamie Love has been explaining that this is creating huge problems at SCCR, because very few people know exactly what's in the text, and they feel that they're wasting time. There had been some hope that a basic agreement might finally have been worked out at this session. But, instead, while lobbyists have been briefed, actual advocates for the blind and the public have been left out in the cold and don't even know what's in the latest draft.
There's no way to describe this other than absolutely shameful on the part of the US government and the Obama administration. It's dragged its feet for years on helping the blind over this issue, even while trying to rush through all sorts of copyright treaties that favor Hollywood. And now, despite all of that, having the US (once again) keep the text a secret... it's just shameful.
A few years ago, Oscar Pistorius was denied participation in the Olympics because his prosthetic carbon-fiber legs were deemed an unfair advantage. As technology improves, it's possible to design artificial body parts that could be superior to the natural ones. So it may only be a matter of time before everyone is wearing gear that improves their natural abilities. Here are just a few examples of projects that could develop better senses.