The Marrakesh Treaty Aims to Reduce the “Global Book Famine”

By Peter Schechter

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The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled, simply known as the Marrakesh Treaty, makes the production and international transfer of specially-adapted books for people with blindness or visual impairments easier.  The purpose of the Treaty is to address and reduce a “global book famine.”  Countries that join the Treaty can improve the education and life-chances of many of their citizens, implement the principles of international human rights law, and stimulate economic development and social progress.    The Marrakesh Treaty facilitates accomplishment of its goals by establishing a set of limitations and exceptions to traditional copyright law.

First, countries that ratify or accede to the Treaty must ensure their laws allow blind people and their organizations to make accessible-format books without the need to ask permission first from the copyright holder (e.g., the author or publisher).  Second, member countries must allow for import and export of accessible versions of books and other copyrighted works, again without copyright holder permission.  This provision of the Treaty is designed to minimize or eliminate the duplication of transcription efforts in different countries, and also allows those nations with larger collections of accessible books to share these collections with visually impaired people in countries with fewer resources.

Anyone who is print disabled – including anyone who has difficulty reading printed material because they are blind or visually impaired, or because of another physical disability that doesn’t allow them to read (for example, if they can’t hold a book or turn the pages) – is a “beneficiary” according to the terms and provisions of the Marrakesh Treaty.  Any work may be copied to convert it into an accessible format, but the copying and conversion must be done by authorized entities only, and the accessible works must be solely for use of beneficiaries.

The Treaty was signed in Marrakesh on June 27, 2013, and came into force on September 30, 2016.  The Marrakesh Treaty is administered by WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization).  All WIPO member states are eligible to become party to the Marrakesh Treaty. To become a member, a state must deposit an “instrument” declaring its intention with the Director General of WIPO.  This instrument must be signed by the Head of State, the Head of Government or the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  The Marrakesh Treaty has no formal relationship with any other international agreement, and there is no requirement for countries to join other copyright treaties in order to ratify or accede to it.  However, the Treaty is wholly compatible with other international agreements on copyright and intellectual property. The copyright limitations or exceptions that Marrakesh Treaty Contracting Parties are required to introduce meet all the criteria for copyright limitations and exceptions under other treaties, including the so-called “three-step test” for exceptions as variously specified in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, the WIPO Copyright Treaty (Article 10), the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty, the EU Computer Programs Directive (Article 6(3)), the EU Database Directive (Article 6(3)), and the EU Copyright Directive (Article 5(5)).

On October 4, New Zealand became the most recent country to join, bringing the total number of countries that are party to the Treaty to 87.  Notable countries that signed the treaty but have neither ratified or acceded to its terms, and thus where the Treaty is not currently in force, include China, Colombia, Greece, and at least ten European countries including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.  Only a small handful of Middle East, African, and Southeast Asian countries have signed, with Sweden also joining the group that has not signed.