Volume 9 Issue 6 - June 01, 2012

Copyright (Amendment) Act: Why did it take 50 years to reach where we are?

On May 22, Copyright (Amendment) Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha. It was the culmination of a decade long advocacy campaign, which brought to the fore another issue that the disability sector has been shying away for ages – lobbying with the Government on issues that initially look difficult and could potentially put one at loggerheads with policy makers and decision makers. D.N.I.S. has followed this campaign for the last couple of years. Much has been written about the whole process and the technical aspects of it. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. writes from the advocacy point of view: why did it take 50 years for the Indian disability sector to get this done?

National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) first came to know about the copyright issue sometime in 2008-09. A few enterprising, young, visually impaired leaders approached us for support to the Right to Read movement at the national level. We were of course, more than happy to do it. But first we had to be educated. And what an eye-opener that was!

According to World Blind Union (W.B.U.), only 5 percent of books worldwide are available to people with print impairment. In a country like India, it gets worse. Only 0.5 percent of the printed material is available in any accessible format such as Braille, large font, digital format, etc. It gets much worse: those that are available in digital form are inaccessible due to inaccessible websites!

Copyright legislation of a country determines whether conversion into accessible formats is permissible under law. The erstwhile Copyright Act of 1957 had no provision where a person who had a print impairment could convert any book into an accessible format. In other words, it was illegal to do so. So, one could not scan a book, convert it into accessible form and share it with other people who had similar requirements.

Several countries, both in the developed and developing world, have modified restrictive copyright laws to enable people with print impairment to convert books for their own use within their country and also share books with each other. These countries have libraries for such accessible books and these libraries could share and circulate material among themselves with no legal restrictions. In India, on the other hand, people with print impairment could not even access already available accessible material from countries abroad!

But all this is history, as we now know. The Copyright (Amendment) Act has now made it legally possible for persons with a print impairment, their friends and families, libraries, non-profit organisations, educational institutes to convert any book into accessible formats. You do not have to take permission from the publisher anymore.

Let’s take a look at how we got here. It is said that a visually impaired professor from Delhi University first brought up this issue in 2002. This made way into the then proposed amendments to the Copyright Act, but with a catch. For the policy makers and decision makers, accessible format meant only Braille. As is well known, Braille is not the most popular way of reading for most people with visual impairment anymore. People who become blind at a later age do not usually learn Braille. Also, the bulky nature of Braille books poses a problem in carrying them around. Digital formats are therefore, becoming more and more popular, especially among the younger generation of people with visual impairments.

By 2008-09, a consistent advocacy campaign took shape with young leaders at the forefront. They kept pushing the issue till it eventually became a reality. It is not that the movement did not have its ups and downs. But the determination with which the people at the helm of this movement kept lobbying with parliamentarians, publishers, law makers and the media is a testimony as to how advocacy should work.

In a sector, where most people bend backwards to please the Government for funding, awards and to be put into ‘committees’, this movement is a case study. Even when it seemed that the Government was playing hardball, these leaders did not give up advocacy for fear of getting into the bad books of the policy makers and decisions makers. In their own way, they persisted. And the results are now for everyone to see.

While we applaud this new breed of visually impaired leaders, there are some hard questions to answer. The erstwhile Copyright Act goes back to 1957. Till 2002, for as long as 45 years, why did it not occur to the then so-called leaders to have realised this crucial issue. Okay, maybe digital formats were not so popular in that era but Braille was. And as per the earlier law, even conversion to Braille was illegal.

This speaks volumes about how non-serious we were on larger advocacy issues. It also exposes the stark difference between advocacy and service delivery. While, those 100 odd people in one’s organisation had Braille books, millions across the country continued to suffer. For well over 15 years now, N.C.P.E.D.P. has been harping on the need for advocacy. In the recent past, most organisations have started claiming to be doing ‘advocacy’. But all that is being done in the name of advocacy is to pick up issues that someone has already flagged, write one tokenistic letter to the powers that be, start a volley of email exchanges among ourselves and then boast that we have done our bit of ‘advocacy’. No follow ups whatsoever, and no intention of taking a campaign to its logical conclusion. The email exchanges fizzle out in a week or two. We at N.C.P.E.D.P. have given this tendency a name ‘HO, HO’. It stands for Hop On, Hop Off!!

We do believe that most leaders and experts in the disability sector are well-intentioned. But the majority lacks the foresight to envisage overarching impact - changes in policies and laws which will change the lives of people with disabilities across the country. We are so seeped in the archaic N.G.O. culture, which 99 percent is service delivery, that we fail to see the larger picture. Unlike other rights movements that do not shy away from locking horns with the Government, we flinch and retreat at the slightest hint of confrontation. Dissent is the bedrock of a democracy but we in the Indian disability sector fail to understand or practice it.

The sector must introspect and make amends. Otherwise, it will take 50 years or even longer to fight for each and every fundamental right. We owe this much to our future generations.

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