The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), as a specialized agency of the United Nations that promotes balanced international intellectual property (IP) protection as a means of rewarding creativity, stimulating innovation, and contributing to economic development and access to knowledge in the public interest. As an immediate priority, WIPO is facilitating arrangements to promote access by visually impaired persons (VIPs) to works protected by copyright.
Frequently quoted figures show that less than 5 percent* of books become available in formats accessible to VIPs (such as Braille, large print or audio-formats) within the first year after publication. Likewise, in the field of higher education 47 percent of blind and partially-sighted students cannot obtain textbooks in preferred formats, and 33 percent of visually impaired children have problems accessing school books in accessible formats.
This issue has an enormous development dimension. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 2002 more than 90 percent of VIPs were resident in low-income developing countries. Blind and other visually impaired people in such countries face significant social and economic constraints which reduce educational opportunities, lower employment prospects and restrict their social lives. Shortages of books, newspapers, magazines, sheet music and information materials in accessible formats only aggravate this inequitable situation.
At present, a combination of social, economic, technological and legal factors is impeding access to published works for VIPs, while the sighted public is enjoying unprecedented ease of access, due in no small part to the distributive power of the Internet. Among the limiting factors is the way that copyright systems currently operate.
Yet evidence suggests that copyright itself can play a role in correcting these imbalances. A 2006 WIPO survey showed that only 57 countries (out of 184 WIPO Member States) have specific legal provisions to assist VIPS or persons with other print disabilities in accessing copyright content. According to the survey, distribution rights under copyright may not allow the movement of copies of works in accessible formats between countries. It seems clear that more copyright-protected material - both analog and digital - could be made available in accessible formats and disseminated across multiple jurisdictions in a timely way, to enhance opportunities for the literacy, independence and productivity of VIPs. It also seems clear that this can be achieved without contravening the legitimate interests of rightholders.
In this connection, the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), the main WIPO body responsible for progressive development of international law in copyright and related rights, has formally signalled the importance of addressing, without delay and with appropriate deliberation, the special needs of VIPs and other reading-disabled persons, including by identifying possible ways and means to facilitate and enhance access to protected works.
With the support of its partners, WIPO has created this dedicated website as a platform for expressions of support, exchange of views, and dissemination of information to all parties interested in the issue of access to information and cultural content by VIPs and other reading-disabled persons.