Volume 6 Issue 11 - November 15, 2009

Right to Read and Copyright Challenges

Not knowing how to read is a curse, it is said. But what about people who know how to but are not able to? It is worse. There is an estimated 70 million people in India who cannot read the printed word or are ‘print impaired’. The solution for them is to convert information into formats such as Braille, large print, audio, electronic and other formats which they can access using assistive technologies. Well, let’s do that then. What is the problem, you may ask. But it is easier said than done.

Fact- the World Blind Union estimates that barely 5 percent of books which get published in developed countries get converted into accessible formats! Fact- in developing countries such as India this estimate gets reduced even further to a bare 0.5 percent!! And in India, even those that are available in digital form are inaccessible due to inaccessible websites!

The Copyright laws of countries are responsible for determining whether such conversions for the benefit of visually impaired persons is possible without seeking permissions from copyright holders. Under the Indian Copyright Act 1957, there is no provision under the fair dealing clause which expressly permits conversions into accessible formats for persons who cannot read print. Consequently it is illegal to scan a book into a computer and read it using a screen reader and to share the same with other visually impaired persons. In effect, this is a curtailment of their fundamental right to read, since they cannot read books in their original printed form and have to necessarily convert them into other formats.

While there are nearly 124 countries which have restrictive copyright laws like India which do not make provisions for such conversion, there are about 54 countries including both developed and developing countries which have enabled the necessary legal framework for persons with print impairments to convert and read books. Visually impaired persons in these countries, in addition to converting books for their own use within their country, can also share books with each other. Hence libraries for visually impaired persons in these countries constantly circulate materials in accessible formats amongst themselves.

Blind persons living in countries like India on the other hand, are unable to undertake conversion or take advantage of already available accessible materials in other countries.

Recognising that this problem needs to be addressed urgently once and for all and that such a solution should come at an international level, the World Blind Union in November 2008, proposed a Treaty before the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (S.C.C.R.) of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (W.I.P.O.) titled “The Treaty for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Other Reading Disabled Persons”, which sought to harmonise exceptions and limitations for visually impaired people in the copyright laws of countries across the world so that there could be a free and unimpeded exchange of knowledge across borders.

This Treaty is currently proposed by three Latin American countries- Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay and is to be discussed at the next meeting of S.C.C.R. in December. At the same time, stakeholders in the treaty (disability organizations and publisher groups) are also trying to address this issue through a stakeholder’s platform constituted especially for this purpose.

Organisations like the D.A.I.S.Y. Forum of India (D.F.I.) and Centre for Internet and Society (C.I.S.) are working towards getting India to amend its copyright laws to ensure that the fundamental right of any person is not infringed.

D.F.I. is also working with publishers to get them to convert their publications into digitised and other accessible formats. Big names like S.A.G.E., Oxford University Press, Sheth Publishers, S. Chand and Co., etc. are already on board.

So what is keeping other publishers away? The fear of piracy. But Vivek Mehra, Managing Director and C.E.O., S.A.G.E. Publications, India, said that this fear is baseless.

“I do not think that releasing books in digitised and other accessible formats will increase or for that matter, even decrease piracy. Even for printed books, copies go missing from the printers’ end or in transit and this is something that publishers cannot control. Therefore to say that releasing digitised books will lead to piracy unfounded,” Mehra said.

The Treaty of the Blind faced stiff opposition from many countries like the United States for example. But at a recent meet in New Delhi, Director General, W.I.P.O., Francis Gurry emphatically stated that it was considering the issue very seriously. However he cautioned against getting hopes too high as any international treaty takes time for all Member States to reach a consensus and then for signing and ratification. This obviously would mean years.

In the light of the ever growing magnitude of this problem in India and the implications that such an international Treaty could have for a country like India, urgent action needs to be taken. The Indian Copyright Act 1957 should be amended and incorporate the necessary flexibilities required for print impaired persons to undertake and share accessible books- this will serve to bring the Act in line with the provisions of the Indian Constitution and U.N.C.R.P.D.

India should also support the Treaty efforts at the W.I.P.O. to harmonise copyright laws at a global level.

Another very important issue that also needs to be taken care of is to strictly implement W.C.A.G. 2.0 guidelines to ensure that the websites are accessible to disabled people.

The Visually Impaired Community (V.I.P.) of India has been fighting this battle for many years and yet blind children are being deprived everyday of vital information which would enable them to pursue education and employment. The community has recently launched a nation wide Right to Read Campaign to raise awareness on this issue amongst the public and policy makers.

The right to read is a fundamental human right for all persons. The ability to seek, receive and impart information and ideas is vital to ensuring that all persons are able to participate productively in the cultural, scientific and economic life of the society. While the powers that be talk about big ticket items like education, employment, etc. of disabled people, we have to ensure that they do not overlook the educational and employment opportunities for the nearly 70 million print impaired persons in India.

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