That's the question that Jina Moore explores in an interesting piece for Foreign Policy -- particularly pertinent because at a conference beginning tomorrow, the World Intellectual Property Organization will decide if it will proceed with a treaty that would dismantle a nonsensical ban on sharing accessible texts from one country to another. The American publishing industry opposes the treaty (because of its "current language"), and the Obama administration has not taken a stance one way or another; official statements amount to equivocations. Because WIPO has a consensus-based decision-making process (a fact that amazes me), the U.S. needs to back the treaty, or it's toast.
One of the issues here is a copyright exception (or lack thereof) that would allow organizations "to copy, in a variety of accessible formats, a copyrighted work without getting permission from or paying a fee to the copyright holder." Moore explains.
"Accessible books" includes Braille print copies, but the more important issue is digital files. Specially coded audio books allow the blind to navigate between chapters, bookmark their reading, and otherwise interact with a text as a sighted person might with a print volume. There are also various text-to-speech programs that can adapt a book for a visually impaired reader. All of these are based on digital files that blind resource organizations say would be easy to share with visually impaired readers, if not for the current regulations.
"Let's say the United States produces the book," says Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind. "Canada has to produce their own version; England has to produce their own version; Australia has to produce its own version, even though all of them are producing it in English Braille or an English talking book."
That's no small thing. Take Britain's most lately beloved literary export, Harry Potter. It cost the National Braille Press in Boston roughly $80,000 to set and print one volume of the series, though the work had already been done in other countries. Pescod says the resources his Royal National Institute of the Blind used to duplicate a single Harry Potter text could have paid for another four titles in Braille and another seven accessible audiobooks.
It sounds like a lot of red tape and a whole lot of money. And what's at stake here?
Current copyright regulations are contributing to a global "book famine" for blind or visually impaired readers, who number around 285 million, according to the World Blind Union (WBU). The WBU estimates that less than 1 percent of all titles are available in accessible formats in the developing world, and only 7 percent in the developed world. Only 8,517 books are accessible to the blind in Chile, Columbia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Uruguay combined, according to the WBU, yet Argentina has 63,000 accessible titles and Spain has 102,000. Spanish, of course, is a national language in each of those countries, but current copyright law doesn't permit Spain or Argentina to share its converted texts.
So, basically, a huge number of people, especially those living in developing countries, have very little to read, and those of us in wealthier countries can't legally donate materials to them. This doesn't just diminish their ability to read for fun (though I'd argue that's significant enough), but to advance in school and in the workplace. It's the systemic suffocation of the talents and skills of people who are visually impaired.
This story, incidentally, is exciting my interest in how books, especially of the literary ilk, are translated into Braille, or in audio formats specifically tailored to visually impaired people. What books are chosen for Braille conversion, and why? How does the rate of fiction books Braille-ized compare to nonfiction, and poetry? "Classic" authors and contemporary authors? Are there multiple translations of some texts available? What makes a Braille version of a book "good" or "not good," and what kind of training do the translators go through? I realize this is a tangent that assumes a certain amount of resources (and laws) for Braille books to even exist, but ... I'm curious. If any readers can point me to stories or information about this, let me know.