Stevie Wonder urges UN diplomats to pass treaty helping the blind or face his musical wrath

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stevie Wonder to UN: Ease copyrights for the blind

GENEVA — Stevie Wonder pressed global copyright overseers on Monday to help blind and visually impaired people access millions of science, history and other audiobooks, which they cannot read in electronic form.

The blind singer told the U.N.’s 184-nation World Intellectual Property Organization that more than 300 million people who “live in the dark” want to “read their way into light,” and the current copyright system denies them an equal opportunity.

The current legal framework means that institutes for the blind in different countries may be required to make multiple audiobook versions of the same work, said Richard Owens, WIPO’s director of copyright and electronic commerce.

Owens said this leads to higher costs that are passed on to the listeners. It also limits access to blind and partially blind people in poor countries, which cannot afford to make their own versions of everything from science textbooks to best-sellers, he said.

The U.N. agency has been trying for six years to revamp its global copyright framework so that it better accounts for new media, such as audiobooks. For the blind and visually impaired, the goal is to create a clearinghouse so that published material can be traded around the world and translated into new, readable formats.

But the problem of access for such copyrighted material goes to the heart of a growing crisis in the world of copyright protection, as the Internet increasingly muddies laws that were created for traditional media. Whereas wide exceptions exist for books in Braille, WIPO officials say there is confusion over how these benefits can be translated into the digital age.

Proponents of a new agreement say the same benefits that digital books provide most consumers — lower costs and better storage and accessibility — should be extended to those with disabilities. The United States and European nations that export large amounts of published material are somewhat hesitant because of concerns over an erosion of intellectual property rights, and want to avoid a binding treaty.

Wonder called for a compromise and teased the diplomats.

“Please work it out. Or I’ll have to write a song about what you didn’t do,” said the 60-year-old singer known for such hits as “Superstition” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

Complicating the talks are the demands of African countries, which are seeking even larger copyright loopholes. They want their libraries and academic institutions to be able to skip licensing agreements so that they can provide audiobook access for larger communities.

Wonder, who has sold tens of million of albums, said any agreement should respect the authors “who labor to create the great works that enlighten and nourish our minds, hearts and souls.” He insisted on a practical solution so that blind and visually impaired people get “the tools to think their way out of poverty.”

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