What’s so great about the Marrakesh Treaty?

View over the shoulder of a young woman who is reading a braille document with her hands.

Worldwide, only 1-7 per cent of published works are available in accessible formats like braille, large print and audio.

The people who have it worst are those living in developing countries, partly because of restrictions in national copyright law. This has often been described as the ‘book famine’.

In 2013, thanks to campaigning work by many disability organisations, the World Intellectual Property Organization adopted the Marrakesh Treaty to promote access to information for people who are visually impaired or otherwise print disabled – this can include people who have visual, perceptual, learning or physical disabilities.

The treaty removes the barriers created by copyright law that prevent books and other published works being copied without permission from the copyright holder. It means that countries that have ratified the treaty must amend their national copyright law to allow for this, making it possible for libraries and other institutions to share accessible format copies with other countries that have joined the treaty.

The Marrakesh Treaty is important particularly for those of us in developing countries, where social rights, including education, are not guaranteed. But comparatively few of these countries, particularly in Africa, have ratified the treaty. Why?


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Some people think, “We already have the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) – that takes care of all rights, including those addressed in the Marrakesh Treaty.” While articles 9, 21 and 24 of the CRPD guarantee the right to information access in various forms, the treaty gives specific guidance on putting this into action. Copyright law is technical and complex, and the treaty outlines how to remove barriers and reverse discriminatory practices.

Publishers fight the law as they believe they’ll lose out on profits. But this is not the case – contrary to popular belief, the treaty doesn’t compel publishers to give out their works for free. It also states that those who are authorised to transform purchased works into accessible formats for the benefit of people with print disabilities cannot do so for the purposes of profit-making.

Copyright access issues do not seem central to the advocacy work of disability organisations, and treaty influencing is seen as secondary to other areas (for example health, education, employment). In fact, copyright access ought to be viewed as a means to increase education uptake among children with print disabilities. Access to information by people with print disabilities is a cornerstone in the attainment of social inclusion, which is the objective of the CRPD.

Ratifying the treaty isn’t without its challenges. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and red tape in engaging copyright holders and copyright commissions. In some instances, such commissions have ended up colluding with copyright holders, or caught in between them and people with print disabilities.

As well as this, the availability of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to engage fully on treaty ratification can be limited. The ratification process requires the significant involvement of legal experts and bodies like copyright commissions. These legal experts are rare among DPOs/NGOs and outsourcing them can be an expensive affair.

Despite these challenges, the benefits of ratifying the treaty are worth the effort. And Sightsavers’ just-launched #EqualWorld petition, which calls for the United Nations and its member states to uphold disability rights, has ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty included in its list of national-level activities (the global call can be signed on our Equal World page).

A call for ratification for the Marrakesh Treaty is a good starting point in addressing inequality, because it allows for treaty parties to put in place policies around access to literature for people with disabilities. This in turn means that funds have to be put in place; governments will take the lead and publishers will be compelled to ensure that they provide for braille and other accessible formats.

This is a huge deal – because when the right to information is denied through a lack of accessible materials, countless people miss out. That’s why the Marrakesh Treaty is critical, and that’s why we’ll continue to fight for it.


“The benefits of ratifying the treaty are worth the effort”


Sightsavers logo.Martin Okiyo and Edwinah Orowe
Martin and Edwinah are Global Advocacy Advisers based in Sightsavers’ Kenya office.

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