Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, but thou shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD. — Lev. 19:14
In a few weeks, the 186 governments that are members of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) will gather in Morocco with the goal of ratifying the Treaty For The Blind — an agreement that would facilitate global production and lending of audio books and otherwise enable the visually impaired and those with certain learning disabilities to have access to printed material and visual works. But last minute lobbying by Hollywood and publishing interests in the U.S. and Europe have threatened to derail the Treaty for the Blind at the last minute. Despite previously expressing support for the Treaty in the past, the Obama Administration is — surprise! — wavering in its support.
Why would the Obama Administration, or anyone else for that matter, throw the blind under the bus in favor of Hollywood and the rest of the IP Mafia, especially when the laws of the United States already comply — or go beyond — what the new Treaty for the Blind would require? Perhaps this Biblical verse can provide an answer:
Do not take [campaign contributions from corporations and trade associations] for [campaign contributions from corporations and trade associations] blind the eyes of the wise and twist the words of the righteous. Deut. 16:19
As we all know now from long experience, the Obama Administration can do the right thing when they get pushed hard enough. So remind the Administration: Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the [Treaty for the] Blind. Please sign this We The People Petition telling the Obama Administration to side with the blind, not Hollywood and the rest of IP Mafia.
More details below . . .
Why is this a matter for the World Intellectual Property Organization? Because while the United States has specific exceptions to copyright to facilitate the production of books for the blind, visually impaired, or other people with learning disabilities, as well as laws facilitating access to video and online content for the blind, many other countries do not. Copyright laws in many countries around the world prevent the visually impaired and those with reading disabilities from having access to books or other kinds of content. Trying to negotiate licenses to create audio versions of works for the blind are difficult to negotiate, providing for special equipment with digital rights management (DRM) demanded by publishers for audio ebooks is complicated and expensive, and rightsholders typically want more money than folks in the developing world can afford.
For years, advocates for the blind have fought against the various U.S. and European trade associations collectively known as the “Intellectual Property (IP) Mafia” to make the same exceptions to copyright law for the visually impaired that we have here in the U.S. available to the developing world. As advocates for the blind keep pointing out, we have had these exemptions in copyright law since 1996 without destroying the multi-bajillion dollar movie and publishing industries.
The IP Mafia insist that allowing people in Brazil or Kenya to have audio book libraries for the visually impaired would destroy the global publishing business, despite the fact that the same rules permitting creation of exactly the same audio book libraries here in the United States has not. Industry trade associations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have fought the Treaty For the Blind tooth and nail since negotiations began at WIPO in earnest in 2009.
MPAA Cuts A Deal To Support the Treaty, Gets What it Wants, Then Breaks The Deal While Laughing Evilly “Mwhahahahaha!!!!”
According to Jamie Love at Knowledge Ecology International, who has worked tirelessly on this Treaty for years, the MPAA promised in 2012 to support the treaty if the U.S. would (a) prevent the Treaty from being extended to the closed captioning and other access technologies for the deaf (because we can only create exceptions to copyright for one disability, so to remove the stumbling block before the blind you must curse the deaf); and, (b) remove all reference in the Treaty to audiovisual works. (See Jamie’s article describing this here and KEI’s Treaty for the Blind resource page here.)
The United States complied and did what MPAA demanded. But, in true Evil Villain form, MPAA has reneged on the bargain. MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd has, according to Love, personally led a furious last minute lobbying campaign to insert even more outrageous terms in the Treaty. Activist for the visually impaired and advocate for the Treaty Jim Fruchterman explains that the proposed changes would transform this from a Treaty for the blind into “a Treaty to Protect Rightsholders From the blind.”
But why, you ask, is the MPAA and its band of copyright maximalists driving the Copyright Crazy Train through the Treaty For The Blind? You would think that any rational lobby with a shred of self-interest (and a currently deplorable reputation for stomping on First Amendment freedoms and fundamental human rights of free expression) would avoid stomping on the blind, especially when the treaty would primarily benefit the impoverished in developing nations.
Srsly, you would think that people from a creative industry would not work so hard at acting like the most cliche villains from their own movies and bad novels. “Please Mr. Hollywood,” says delegation of adorable, multi-ethnic, and clearly impoverished barefoot children. “All we want is what you already have in the United States. A way to make cheap audio books, the right to lend them to one another easily so that we can have libraries of them in our own countries. My sister Malika (points to adorable young girl) has terrible dyslexia, she cannot read. But still she yearns to study and educate herself! Emilo there has been blind since birth, but he dreams of studying to become a doctor. Because of the copyright laws you forced on our countries, no one can afford to pay the outrageous roaylties to make audio books, and ebook readers are illegal as a tool of copyright circumvention. The Treaty for the Blind is our one hope. Please, we beg you, can’t we please have audio books like you do in the United States?”
And Chris Dodd, stroking his fluffy white persian cat with one hand, sitting on his Control Chair of Evil, puts his champaign glass down next to his caviar. He looks benevolently at the children for a moment, smiles and says: “All right, I’ll give you your audio books — IN HELL!!!!“ Then he pushes a button on the Control Chair of Evil, causing a trap door to open dumping all the adorable multi-ethnic impoverished children into a pool filled with sharks with friggin’ laser beams strapped to their heads. As their screams resound throughout the chamber, Chris Dodd laughs evilly, picks up his gold-platted uber-iPhone 6 and says: “Tell our army of lobbyists to go to Def Con 5 — there will be no Treaty in Morocco unless we get all the new conditions we want! Mwhaahahahahahahahaha!!!!!”
But Why? Why Would MPAA Do This When the Treaty Won’t Even Include Movies?
O.K., they probably don’t have the sharks. But I am fairly certain that the above represents how the developing world is feeling about Hollywood and their lackeys in the EU and U.S. right now. So why, after spending 2012 dealing with the SOPA freak out in the U.S. and the ACTA freak out in Europe, is MPAA leading the charge to drive the Copyright Crazy Train to run over the blind? Especially MPAA, which got what it wanted and excluded audiovisual works and the deaf (so no closed captioning or video description, even though we have both of those in the U.S), ought to support this Treaty as an opportunity to prove they have basic human feelings and don’t torture puppies for fun.
According to Chris “Dr. Evil” Dodd, the MPAA and the rest of the IP Mafia just want “balance.” But as with so many other megalomaniacal villains with evil laughs, Dodd’s self-justifying soliloquy reveals too much. As always, Dodd alludes to the mythical conspiracy (in this case, a conspiracy of blind people) to “use this meaningful treaty as a vehicle to weaken copyright and ultimately undermine the global marketplace WIPO is charged with strengthening.” These real villains, Dodd maintains “have advocated for the inclusion of certain provisions that would establish lower thresholds for copyright protection and weaken certain means used for protecting copyright works.”
And, of course, there is the tone of injury and betrayal when Dodd notes that this is all taking place at WIPO, which is supposed to be about strengthening copyright laws — not recognizing a modest limitation to help the blind!
Lets set aside the fact that this sounds like “How dare you defy me, you fools! You give me no choice but to destroy you!” Instead, let us translate what Dodd actually says.
There Is One God And It Is Copyright. Exceptions — Even For The Blind — Are Not Balance But Heresy That Must Be Stamped Out!
The entire point of the Treaty for the Blind is to take the exception to copyright enshrined in U.S. law and move it into an international treaty precisely because the maximalist copyright regimes MPAA and others have tried (with considerable success) to impose on the rest of the world make it practically impossible to make audio books for the blind broadly available in the developing world. But Dodd and his Copyright Cronies see even this limited exception as a ‘lower threshold for copyright.’ That even acknowledging that such an exception and limitation to copyright is beneficial and serves the common good would “weaken copyright” and “ultimately undermine the global marketplace WIPO is charged with strengthening.”
Because if an international treaty (especially a WIPO Treaty!) ever, for once, recognized the rights and needs of even a tiny class of users such as the blind outweighed the rights and needs of copyright holders — and that the law must therefore strike a balance between these interests — it would be the end of the unlimited march of Copyright Maximalism. To even acknowledge that any balance between copyright and some other right would require copyright to yield, even a smidgen, even for unrelated works, is such anathema to MPAA that they will fight it to the death.
Hence the last minute drive to layer in more and more tech mandates and restrictions on making works available to the visually impaired. The amendments demanded by MPAA and the rest of the IP Mafia would not only eliminate the benefits of the Treaty for the visually impaired of the developing world. If we were to apply them in the United States (which no one proposes doing, but if we did), they would seriously undermine our existing copyright exemptions for the blind.
That is Chris Dodd’s idea of “balance.” “Balance” means copyright expands to erode or eliminate any existing exceptions and limitations. “Balance” for MPAA means iron control, where copyright holders may capriciously chose to provide charity to the blind as a matter of grace, but where no one must imagine that the blind or anyone else may demand things as a matter of right. “Balance” for Chris Dodd, the MPAA, and the I.P. Mafia is a world where generous Copyright Barons smile benevolently at their consumer peasants — who had better remember to walk damned humbly.
It is the wounded pride and arrogance of the tyrant defied, informed by the fear of losing an absolute iron grip on power. Such motives well suit a comic book or movie villain. A pity this is real life, and real people who will suffer if this injustice is not stopped.
What We Can Do
Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, I am the Lord! — Lev. 19:16
It ill behoves the United States, where a free people boast they live by a rule of law that gives its citizens an exemption to copyright as a matter of right not as a matter of grace, to support such a twisted vision. And as a free people, with the right and responsibility to “petition our government for redress of grievances,” it falls to us to take action when our government loses its moral compass and sides with Hollywood over the blind.
The first step requires little effort, just the willingness to click a link and sign the We the People petition asking the U.S. to side with the blind rather than with Hollywood and support the Treaty for the Blind without further “balance.” We have already made these rights available to ourselves. In 1996 when we amended the Copyright Act with the Chaffee Amendment, and even more recently in 2010 when we passed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, we made a decision that real balance in copyright required limiting the right of copyright holders to facilitate making works available to the blind and the visually impaired. That balance — a true balance — still holds. We as a Nation should stand for these values globally, securing the same rights for the blind globally that we recognize as fundamental here.
Above all, we must not replace the true balance between copyright and human rights with the false “balance” urged by MPAA and its allies. For the United States to adopt Chris Dodd’s twisted vision of “balance” in place of the balance we have struck in our copyright law would be worse than hypocrisy. It would be a betrayal of an even more fundamental ideal. We have expressed it in many ways over the centuries. But it has reverberated through the millennia since Moses first announced it the Children of Israel 3000 years ago. Thou Shalt Not Put A Stumbling Block Before The Blind!
Stay tuned . . . .