In the last week of June, in one of the world’s most visually evocative cities, an agreement was reached with major repercussions for the visually impaired: the Marrakesh Treaty on Facilitating Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind. The deal, preceded by arduous talks, broadly exempts from copyright constraints books and other materials printed in blind-friendly formats. An estimated third of a billion people – blind, partially sighted or otherwise print-challenged – will potentially benefit from the Treaty’s provisions.
As Pranesh Prakash of India’s Centre for Internet and Society put it in his closing remarks, “It is historic that today WIPO [the World Intellectual Property Organization] and its members have collectively recognized in a treaty that copyright isn't just an ‘engine of free expression,’ but can pose a significant barrier to access to knowledge. […] This Treaty recognizes the right to read […].”
The Marrakesh deal is being hailed as an example of how the interests of disadvantaged communities may be safeguarded while still protecting intellectual property; of the way enlightened lawmaking can nurture technical, scientific and cultural progress, and further the cause of justice, equality and opportunity in the process.
Similar recent instances – whether India’s ruling on pharmaceutical ‘evergreening’ or the extension of Least Developed Nations’ waiver on complying with IP enforcement rules – suggest an increasing awareness that as we expand the frontiers of knowledge, none of our fellow humans must be left behind. Progress, the thinking goes, is a collective endeavor. Access points must be provided for all. The idea that the fruits of innovation might only be available within global gated communities is not only morally questionable, but self-defeating.
How to share the benefits of science, technology and innovation was earlier this month the subject of an IDLO-hosted event at the Annual Ministerial Review of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in Geneva. The roundtable breakfast meeting was co-sponsored by Italy and Mexico. Attendees included senior diplomats and government representatives from Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Germany, India, Kyrgyzstan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Tunisia and the United Kingdom.
IDLO’s growing focus on scientific inclusivity is reflected in its pioneering work on biodiversity – an interactive digital platform is promoting innovative legal approaches to achieving the Aichi targets – and its course on technology licensing for developing countries. (The course’s fourth edition has just concluded, with participants from 20 nations.)
“The rule of law,” IDLO Director-General Irene Khan told the ECOSOC roundtable, “is essential. […] A culture of justice, supported by effective institutions and good governance frameworks, can make the difference between socially blind scientific and technological advancements and sustainable, human centered ones, between indiscriminate access to resource and equitable benefit-sharing.”