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E.U. joins WIPO's 'Books for Blind' Treaty

The E.U. joined a global treaty overseen by WIPO that greatly expands the availability of books in a format that visually impaired people can use.

GENEVA (AN) — The European Union has joined a global treaty overseen by the World Intellectual Property Organization, greatly expanding availability of books produced in a format that visually impaired people can use.

The "Books for Blind" Marrakesh Treaty championed by United Nations Messenger of Peace Stevie Wonder will have 70 member nations when the 28-nation E.U. is added at the start of 2019, according to the European Commission.

The treaty removes the obligation for nations to gain permission before making available copies of books for visually impaired people. The E.U. ratified the treaty on October 1 at the U.N.'s World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, during its General Assembly meeting in Geneva.

Nations that join the treaty, however, are required to adopt legal provisions that will allow books to be produced in accessible formats. Those include braille, e-text, audio or large print. The books are produced by organizations, known as "authorized entities," that serve people who are print disabled.

The E.U.’s ratification is a big help for visually impaired people in Europe and other nations as well by "allowing them to enjoy texts in accessible formats currently available in any country that has implemented the provisions of the treaty," said WIPO's Director General Francis Gurry.

He urged other nations to join in creating "a universal, worldwide treaty so visually impaired people can benefit from any accessible book that is produced in any corner of the globe." Gurry told WIPO's assembly that the treaty probably has become the “fastest moving" in the organization's history.

Wonder, a world renowned singer-songwriter and longtime advocate of better services for people with disabilities, became a U.N. Messenger of Peace in 2009. He campaigned for the treaty when it was adopted in 2013 during a diplomatic conference convened by WIPO and Morocco at Marrakesh.

The treaty entered into force in 2016, three months after it gained the minimum 20 ratifications.

Books for a quarter billion

Austria's U.N. envoy in Geneva, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, said the treaty's quick expansion is a welcome sign at "a time when multilateralism is not always easy and has many detractors" globally.

"It is probably not exaggerated to say that the adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty was a little moment of glory which demonstrated the ability of the international community to identify common political solutions,” she said in a statement from WIPO.

She was referring to the political enmity that has taken hold in some corners against international organizations and the order and achievements they represent. They have been under attack by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration and the governments of other right-wing populist leaders.

Only up to 5% of all literature is accessible to blind and visually impaired people, according to Claire Bury, a deputy director general of the European Commission. The World Health Organization estimated 253 million people worldwide have visual impairments, mostly in lower-income countries.

“That sum represents a book famine," Bury said. "If we can unlock for blind people that knowledge, that hope, that thinking — then we will have indeed made a very significant step."