Joint lobbying by the publishing industry, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) , and the National Library for the Blind (NLB)1 led to a Visually Impaired Persons (VIP) Copyright Act which was enacted into the United Kingdom law in October 2002.
Before 2003 rightholders permission was required for every title to be transcribed into an alternative format. Improving efficiency and simplifying processes for customers and the industry was a shared priority. A carefully written copyright exception that balanced the needs of all stakeholders was desirable to prevent a number of earlier problems:
- Publishers were not always able to grant the necessary permissions, and sometimes had to refer requests on to literary agents, other publishers and authors. In some cases no-one was sure who actually held the rights.
- There could be some confusion if more than one charity supporting people with print disabilities approached the publisher for permission to create accessible versions of the same title. Smaller publishers without dedicated permissions teams could be overwhelmed by the volume of requests and might not always respond in a timely fashion. Sometimes publishers seemed to simply ignore permission requests despite several reminders.
- There was inconsistency about payments, with most giving permission seeking nothing, but a few asking for payment.
- Collections of short stories and poetry and anthologies could be particularly difficult to license as there was sometimes a need for permission to be obtained from all the contributors.
- Permissions could include various terms, such as on the geographical extent of loans, the number of copies that could be made and the time needed before permission could be sought again.
Even before the VIP Copyright Act, some of these problems began to ease as, for example, some of the larger publishers had started to offer blanket permission, but challenges remained and the process of seeking permission was a huge administrative burden not only for institutions that produced and/or distributed materials for the visually impaired, but also for smaller and medium sized publishers and for accessible format producers.
The 2002 legislative change introduced an exception to copyright when an appropriate version was not commercially available. It also enabled rightholders to set up licensing schemes to override the exception so long as the licensing scheme was not more restrictive in what was permitted than the exception. The Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) is one organization that sets up a licensing scheme that covers the production of alternative formats of books, journals, and magazines. A separate scheme operated by the Music Publishers Association (MPA) exists for sheet music.
In 2004, stakeholders met under the auspices of the UK government to review progress in meeting the reading needs of people with print disabilities. All agreed that, despite the 2002 VIP Copyright Act, no discernible increase in the number of accessible publications could be detected. Instead, it was agreed to commission a series of partnership projects to investigate ways to increase the number of accessible editions available to those with print disabilities. The first initiative was a government-backed Feasibility Project to investigate the potential for bringing about a significant increase in accessible book products for blind and partially sighted people. The project was funded by the Publishers Licensing Society and the RNIB and involved stakeholders for an array of other trade bodies including the Publishers Association, the Booksellers Association, and the Society of Authors. All the partners were committed to work on the project as they support the overall objective of increasing the availability of accessible products. The project was successful and reported in 2006. A series of follow-up projects were launched including the FOCUS project which embedded large print titles in bookshops throughout the UK and the Accessible Learning Resources Project (still underway) which is investigating sustainable ways of supporting school students in obtaining accessible books and other learning materials. A regular round-up of news from the UK is published in a quarterly Publishing Accessibility Newsletter.
1 The National Library for the Blind (NLB) was a public library, founded 1882, which aimed to ensure that people with sight problems had the same access to library services as sighted people. NLB merged with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in 2007 to improve efficiency and simplify processes for customers and the industry.