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THEORY AT WORK: Professor Ruth Okediji

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Prof. Ruth Okediji at WIPO's Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights, 25th session, Feb. 2013, Geneva


Reprinted from Perspectives, Spring 2013

If you're sighted, there's never been more ways to get your hands on a book. Stores, online retailers, and libraries will sell or loan you a title to read on paper, iPad, Kindle, Nook, or mobile phone. But if you're one of the world's 285 million blind or visually impaired people, your options are much more limited. Even in rich countries, about 95% of books are simply unavailable in accessible, digital formats or braille; in poor countries, that figure nears 99%.

"It's a massive problem," says Dan Pescod, vice chair of the World Blind Union's Right to Read campaign. The lack of reading materials in accessible formats is so severe that activists like Pescod refer to it as a "book famine."

One way to feed those who hunger for books in a language they can understand and a format they can read is to reform international copyright law. Enter Ruth Okediji, a Law School professor specializing in international intellectual property, copyright, and trademarks. For nearly a decade, she has been working with advocates from the blind and visually impaired communities to legalize cross-border sharing of accessible books.

"The world is very difficult for non-sighted people," Okediji says. "A treaty would help change that."

While downloading a novel in India or Ghana from a U.S.-based Web site rich in accessible books would be a breeze, a strong headwind prevents that from happening. That simple act is often illegal since there’s no international copyright exception for blind and visually impaired people.

So accessible versions of a book are often produced multiple times in the same language. For example, the enormous popularity of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets prompted groups in several English-speaking countries to create 13 reproductions of the novel: 8 audio and 5 braille.

"That is crazy," says Chris Friend, former chair of the World Blind Union's Right to Read campaign. And it's expensive. Each individually mastered version may cost $5,000 to produce, he says.

Current non-sharing standards don't just prevent accessible versions of popular and literary works from making their way around the globe. They also block sharing of textbooks. And that, says Okediji, is a tragic waste of human potential.

"Imagine the challenge for a non-sighted person in Africa or Asia, where it's not just about getting Harry Potter or Shakespeare. It's about having books to go to school," she says.

A U.N. agency focused on the issue, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), is on the cusp of creating an exception for blind and visually impaired people in international copyright law. WIPO representatives are due to meet in Marrakesh, Morocco, in June to conclude a treaty that would institute this change in international law.

"The international intellectual property system was created for the protection of authors and the rights holders," Okediji says. "Never have we had an international copyright agreement that creates a mandatory exception to those rights. It may seem like a small thing, but in the area of intellectual property, it's a sea change."

Okediji, whose father emigrated to the United States from Nigeria, is representing that country in the negotiations as the lead expert. Nigeria has always played a key role in the multilateral engagements of the African Group the world over. This often means that in Geneva Okediji plays an instrumental role in helping to articulate the negotiating positions of the 56 nations that comprise the African Group.

According to Pescod, Okediji is a knowledgeable insider, a fierce negotiator, and infectiously personable. "She's a force of nature," Pescod says. "She has a passion for this issue—full stop. For her, it's a simple question of equality and rights."

Although Okediji has published widely and won multiple honors, she says that advocating for blind and visually impaired people is among her most important activities. "It's the place where all of the things that have fueled my research, teaching, and scholarship have come together perfectly."

Once a new international treaty is signed, millions of readers will be able to download accessible books from websites with robust libraries, such as the U.S.-based nonprofit Bookshare, which boasts more than 179,000 titles. Access to a similar site based in Madrid will mean the instant availability of Spanish-language books to blind and visually impaired people in Latin countries and South America.

The result is a widespread and meaningful impact on the lives of people. Says Okediji, "It's about finding ways for people to be fully human, and it's about protecting their sense of dignity."

By Todd Melby, a freelance writer and radio producer based in Minneapolis


Follow-up brief

The dearth of accessible textbooks and literature for the blind and visually impaired has been called a "book famine." Until recently, a major cause has been international copyright laws that blocked the sharing of say, a Spanish-language audio version of "War and Peace" created in Mexico with an unsighted person in Argentina.

In June, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) voted to allow such sharing to begin. "It is the first time in its 127-year history that the international copyright system has recognized a human right" as cause for adjusting the law, says Ruth Okediji, a Law School professor who is an expert on the topic.

Okediji served as chief negotiator for Nigeria and the African Group during talks in Marrakesh, Morocco and worked on the issue for years. The victory, she said, represented a "sea change in international copyright law."

To celebrate what has become known as the "Miracle at Marrakesh," pop star Stevie Wonder traveled to the event to address delegates. "Today my heart is at peace and my faith in humanity has been renewed," he said.