India Was The First Country To Ratify The Marrakesh Treaty: Why That Should Make Us Proud

The treaty comes into force from today.

30/09/2016 6:38 PM IST | Updated 30/09/2016 7:27 PM IST
Amr Dalsh / Reuters
Representative image. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

It's one of those rare instances when India can be proud of coming first.

On 27 June 2013, 79 countries that are part of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) adopted the Marrakesh Treaty. Just under a year, on 24 June 2014, India became the first nation to ratify it at the 28th session of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Acts in Geneva. Since then, 21 countries have followed suit. Finally, from today, 30 September 2016, the treaty comes into force — a historic moment by any reckoning.

The Marrakesh Treaty addresses the scarcity of books available to visually impaired readers, or to those who are unable to read printed books due to other physical disabilities, by adding a set of mandatory exceptions to the existing copyright law.

The Indian Copyright Act of 1957 did not have any provision to facilitate the production and distribution of books in formats that are accessible to print-impaired readers. While the practice of converting books into Braille for the visually impaired exists in this country, not enough is done to create audiobooks or e-formats with speech-enabled text for readers, who may be dyslexic or have other difficulties in reading print books.

Even to produce books in Braille permissions from publishers have to be taken, which are not always easy to obtain. With the ratification of the treaty, organisations that cater to print-impaired readers can now produce books in Braille or other user-friendly formats without seeking the permission of publishers or copyright holders.

The treaty also allows Indian organisations, for the first time, to borrow books in accessible formats from libraries and other institutional holdings across the world. Such a provision reduces the possibility of duplication. If a book already exists in an accessible format in another part of the world, it can be loaned by an Indian organisation, without having to go through the trouble of making a copy. This vision has already been realised with the establishment of the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) by WIPO in June 2014.

ABC has a centralised electronic multilingual catalogue of accessible books produced by libraries from across the world for the blind. It enables organisations to add to their collections of such books from other countries. Nineteen libraries for the blind from 16 countries are already part of it. Over 1,00,000 loans have been made to visually impaired readers worldwide by ABC through its partners.

However, the most heartening part of the India story is this: unlike most public policies that look great on paper but take ages to get implemented, this one has already seen the light of day.

In an article in The Hindu, the Director General of WIPO, Francis Gurry praises India for taking bold steps in implementing the Marrakesh Treaty. In August this year, India launched Sugamya Pustakalaya, which is the largest collection of online accessible books available in the country. In addition to the Accessible India Campaign, Gurry praised the government for adopting "a multi-stakeholder approach", involving private and public sector organisations.

Once Sugamya Pustakalaya becomes part of ABC, many more visually impaired readers in India would be able to access books from across the world, in different languages, without having to depend on anyone to read these aloud to them.

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