Braille Monitor                          October 2018

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No Borders to the World’s Knowledge: A Commitment to Accessibility for the Blind

by Francis Gurry

Francis GurryFrom the Editor: Scott LaBarre introduced the next speaker with these words: “This next gentleman is somebody who has been critical in bringing greater access to information to the blind and print-disabled of the world, someone who was critical and key in helping us get the Marrakesh Treaty first adopted and now further implemented throughout the world. He is a high-level United Nations official, and for him to be with us here, not only this afternoon but at our banquet, is indeed a privilege and a distinction for our organization. He holds law degrees from the University of Melbourne and a PhD from the University of Cambridge.

I also note that he has served as secretary general of the International Union to Preserve New Species of Plants. He served as deputy director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization [WIPO] starting in 2003, and in 2008 assumed the title of director general. WIPO—the United Nations agency that deals with intellectual property rights—played a critical role in getting Marrakesh adopted, and it would not have done that without this gentleman’s leadership.

Second, since the adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty in 2013 he has established programs for WIPO to lead implementation efforts all over the world. And thirdly, through his leadership WIPO established the Accessible Books Consortium, which is another vehicle to help implement the Marrakesh Treaty. And more important, he’s become a true friend of the National Federation of the Blind. Join me in welcoming and giving a loud and warm National Federation of the Blind welcome to Dr. Francis Gurry! [applause, cheers]

Thank you very much, Scott. Dear friends, it really is a privilege to be with you. It’s a thrill to be at this national convention of the National Federation of the Blind, and I’d say it’s one of the highlights of my career to be with you to jointly celebrate the conclusion of the Marrakesh Treaty and the pending ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty by the United States of America. [applause] I’d like to thank Mark Riccobono, the President of the NFB; Fred Schroeder, vice president and president of the World Blind Union; Scott LaBarre, your (I would say) indominable negotiator who has—and I’ll say a little more about this—really lead the process of negotiation and compromise that resulted in the Marrakesh Treaty.

Let me just start by saying a few brief words about the World Intellectual Property Organization: we’re a United Nation’s agency, as Scott has mentioned. We have 193 member-states, so it’s the whole world, really. We deliver a variety of services in the field of intellectual property, and we are custodians of about twenty-six multilateral treaties that establish rules worldwide in the field of intellectual property, of which the Marrakesh Treaty is one.

Intellectual property—it’s a bit of a special field, but really it is about the creation of new knowledge: providing incentives to ensure that we do get innovation, technology, literature, publications, music, all forms of new knowledge. And as Francis Bacon said a little over 400 years ago, “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge is power collectively for countries, for companies, and individually for individuals.

At World Intellectual Property Organization we are committed to an effective and a balanced intellectual property system, one that ensures the creation of new knowledge but also the sharing of the social benefit of the new knowledge. And that balance and fairness and justice and human rights were at the heart of the “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled.” I would say that the conclusion of the Marrakesh Treaty in 2013 is one of the greatest achievements of the World Intellectual Property Organization in its 130-year history. [applause]

What does it do? Very briefly, it creates a mandatory exception worldwide to enable the copyright of a published work not to interfere with, if you’d like, or to be broken, if you’d like, in order to create an accessible format of the work for persons who are blind or visually impaired. And most importantly it allows the cross-border exchange of any work so created. So it creates a truly international forum for the exchange of publications in accessible formats.

It was remarkable that this treaty was concluded for several reasons. First of all, of course, unfortunately, as we all know, we live in a very divided world, and the Marrakesh Treaty represented one of the few occasions in the last several years in which the world has been able to come together with a unity of purpose, that unity of purpose being to end the book famine and to create the conditions for access worldwide to publications and thus to knowledge for persons who are blind. A second remarkable thing about the Marrakesh Treaty is that it was driven by civil society and non-governmental organizations, and premier amongst those was the National Federation of the Blind. [applause] I would like to congratulate the NFB for this fantastic achievement. It was in 2009 that the World Blind Union presented through the delegations of Brazil, Ecuador, and Paraguay at the World Intellectual Property Organization a proposal for the Marrakesh Treaty. It took four years to conclude—you might think that’s a long time, I can tell you it’s a short time internationally. We’ve got negotiations going on at the moment for a new treaty in the area of broadcasting. They have been going on for twenty years, and we still don’t have agreement. You know we have negotiations for an international instrument to protect traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, and they, too, have been going on for twenty years. So the four years that it took from the start to the end of the Marrakesh Treaty really was, in international terms, given that you have to establish a comfort level for 193 states, was really quite rapid, and it shows the expression of the solidarity of the whole world for the rights—the human rights—of blind persons. That was 2013, and for the conclusion of the proceedings let me say for those who don’t know that we had Stevie Wonder who came specially to Marrakesh to urge the delegates to really do the deal, to conclude the deal, and then to present a concert with his friends at the end to celebrate the conclusion of the Marrakesh Treaty.

We are now at forty countries that have ratified the Marrakesh Treaty. [applause] We will not rest until the whole world has ratified the Marrakesh Treaty.

Where do we go from here? The first thing is universality. Because of this facility to exchange books that is established across borders, that is established by the Marrakesh Treaty, this facility is a facility for dealing with the enormous differences that exist in this world between capacity and economic power of different countries. It creates the possibility for rich countries like the United States of America or the European Union to share the books that they have been able to establish in accessible formats with the poorest countries of the world, and this is a wonderful, wonderful thing. [applause] As you know, thanks to your efforts, we are hoping that the United States of America will ratify very soon the Marrakesh Treaty. We have a commitment from the European Union that it will ratify it in October of this year. That’ll bring us up to sixty-nine countries, and we have a target of 100 countries by the end of 2019. [applause]

Scott has mentioned the Accessible Books Consortium. Let me just say a few brief words—because I know we’re running out of time—about the Accessible Books Consortium. It’s a vehicle for really implementing the Marrakesh Treaty, because what the Marrakesh Treaty does is it creates the possibility of the exchange of books in accessible formats. The Accessible Books Consortium actually does the exchanges. So we have a global book service with an online catalog that now makes over 200,000 works in accessible formats available. That collection exists in seventy-six languages in Braille, DAISY text, MP3, humanly-created audio tapes, and soon EPUB3. It also does capacity building, so 90 percent of the population of blind persons in the world is to be found in the developing and least-developed countries. We have projects in twelve developing and least-developed countries: Argentina, Bangladesh, Botswana, Burkina Faso, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, and Vietnam. In those twelve countries we are helping with the establishment of libraries for the blind so that they can benefit from the Marrakesh Treaty. And through donations from the Australian government we have created 4,500 texts and books and materials of an educational type for primary students, secondary students, and tertiary students in developing countries in local languages, and by the end of this year we’ll get to 8,000. Finally, what it does is it represents a commitment and an encouragement to accessible publishing. Born accessible is what we want from publishing. We have an international excellence award and a charter for accessible publishing which is getting more and more adherences from the publishing community.

So finally, let me say about the Marrakesh Treaty you can be sure that WIPO will renew and strengthen as much as possible its commitment to the universality of this treaty and to the objectives of this treaty and to ensuring practical ways of its implementation. We will also, since we are an organization which deals with rights in relation to technology, be starting a major focus next year on assistive technologies and how we can ensure that assistive technologies are more evenly shared across the world in the spirit of solidarity amongst the whole world. So, dear friends, it really is a pleasure and a great privilege to have been with you this afternoon. Thank you very much Mark. [applause]

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