Bookshare Needs Our Help!

“They’re willing to screw all these blind people because it might have some theoretical policy significance in some other forum,” Jamie Love, Director of the advocacy group Knowledge Ecology International.

Love’s comment quoted in Ars Technica article, was in response to recent negotiations over a copyright treaty for accessible print material (

After receiving an email from Bookshare,org on 5/24/13 with the subject line “URGENT: Bookshare Needs Your Help,” (full text of email appears below), I began doing some research on the “Treaty for the Blind” and the copyright policies involved.

Bookshare, and other non-profits are able to prepare accessible books and periodicals for distribution to readers with a print disability such as blindness, vision impairment, dyslexia, or the inability to hold a book or other reading material. This is possible to an exception in the copyright law called the Chaffee Amendment. Without this exception, each publisher must be contacted separately and rights negotiated individually, a time-consuming and laborious process that was undertaken for each title prior to 1996, when this amendment was enacted.

While this amendment exists in the US and some other countries, it is not an international law, and the sharing of accessible materials created by a non-profit in one country, often may not be shared with another country. As a result, this access to print is nonexistent in many countries. The intent of “Treaty for the Blind” is to change that.

It appears that most stakeholders are not opposed to increased accessibility to print, in theory. In 2009, the Obama administration supported this treaty, but according to Wired Magazine, the administration has been worn down by those concerned that this legislation will lead to a loss of royalty revenues. The article states:

Richard F. Phillips, the president of the Intellectual Property Owners Association and a top-ranking Exxon attorney, wrote to the Obama administration on behalf of the association that the treaty negotiations “threaten to upset the fundamental balance on which our US and global IP system is based.” (.pdf)

On the masthead of the letter is a who’s who of industry giants, including Apple, Johnson & Johnson, GE, Xerox, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, IBM, Caterpillar, Siemens and a host of others. Google and Microsoft, also listed on the masthead, said they don’t support the association’s position. Intel, also listed, said it takes no position on the treaty.

What’s next? Negotiations for the Blind Treaty will continue next month at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the Obama administration needs to hear, right now, from people supporting this treaty. A petition supporting the Blind Treaty is posted on the White House web site with a goal of 100,000 signatures by June 22, 2013, to compel the administration its support of the treaty. Add your signature to the petition!

Take a look at the Bookshare email below:


Dear Bookshare Supporter,

It’s not typical for us to send you an email like this, but we felt this situation was so important it was necessary.

You may already be aware, but for years negotiations have been moving forward on what many have come to call the “Treaty for the Blind.” The goal of the international treaty is to make it possible for people who are blind, or have other print disabilities such as dyslexia, to get access to the books they need for education, employment and inclusion in society—no matter where they live. It’s something we already do, with great success, in the United States through Bookshare.

However, private interests are trying to alter the treaty in such a way that it would become useless—even harmful. For example, they’re trying to get language adopted that basically says: “if you can buy it, you can’t borrow it.” This is not only an attack on people around the world with print disabilities—it’s also an attack on libraries, like Bookshare, and could have a drastic effect on the number of books you have access to.

Our biggest worry is this becoming a treaty that could stop Bookshare from serving our users in the United States the way we do today.  We need our government negotiating for a treaty that supports a library like Bookshare.

That’s why we’re working with a coalition of disability and library groups, including the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, to fight back against the proposed changes by these private interests. We’ll do everything we can to secure a treaty that both protects the access we have now and that will benefit people with print disabilities around the world—but we need your help.

We’re asking you to take a moment to sign a petition on the White House’s website that urges the President to step up his support: If we can get to 100,000 signatures, the White House is required to respond to the petition and will, hopefully, take positive action. With your help we know we can reach that number.  We also recommend the petition at the National Federation of the Blind’s site, which is particularly accessible.

Thank you for your time and support. Together, we believe that our collective voice can make a real impact.

If you’re interested in more background on the treaty, here are some articles and resources you can review:

Jim Fruchterman & Betsy Beaumon, Bookshare

P.S. Please post the link to the White House petition on your social media to help spread the word and get your friends involved! Again, here is the link:

Note: this advocacy effort by Benetech, the nonprofit organization that operates Bookshare, has not been supported or endorsed by Bookshare funders, including the U.S. Department of Education.   


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