March 17, 2018

If You Can Buy It, You Can’t Borrow It? | Backtalk

What would happen to our libraries if the following statement became a reality: “If you can buy a book, you can’t borrow it?” What if I told you that it’s on the verge of happening internationally, and in a way that is pretty despicable?

For years, international negotiations have been moving forward on what many have come to call the “Treaty for the Blind.” The goal of the treaty is to make it possible for people who are blind, or have other print disabilities like dyslexia, to get access to the books they need for education, employment, and inclusion in society, no matter where they live. The treaty would accomplish this through a copyright exception for the print disabled modeled after the one we have here in the United States.

At first, private interests, like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), were supportive of the treaty. Who wouldn’t want to help one of the most economically disadvantaged groups of people in the world, right? Then, they realized they could squeeze something out of this treaty that would greatly benefit them—stricter international copyright law. Now, these private interests are trying to alter the treaty in such a way that it would become great for them and useless—even harmful—for the print disabled.

But it’s bigger than that. The language they’re pushing for—including the “if you can buy a book, you can’t borrow it” concept—could mean an end to libraries as we know them. If adopted more broadly, this concept would severely undercut the traditional role libraries play in serving those who simply cannot afford to purchase books. And imagine a person using the library to do research or a school project—someone who needs to look at ten or twenty books, but doesn’t want to buy them—they’d be out of luck. If the United States adopted the treaty with language like this, publishers could insist that that we’d need to change our laws to start keeping commercially available books out of our libraries serving people with disabilities.  And, if we start requiring people with disabilities to buy books rather than borrowing them from libraries, who’s next?

As the CEO of Benetech, a nonprofit that provides the world’s largest online collection of accessible books for the print disabled through our Bookshare library, this is of grave concern for me. As an organization that puts the United States’ disability-specific copyright exception into practice, I can say with confidence that our exception model works. We go to great lengths to ensure the digital works we provide are restricted to bona fide print disabled patrons. And while the publishing industry was skittish about Bookshare’s library at first, they’re now partners, directly providing 80 percent of the 3,000 books we add to our collection each month.  Our quarter-million American patrons now download more than a million accessible books and periodicals each year!

I don’t need to say what an immensely positive impact access to these books has had on the lives of people with print disabilities, students in particular. If you’re interested is seeing for yourself, check out some of our member stories. What I will say is that ripping books out of the hands of those who need them most—whether it’s from our Bookshare library or from your local library—is simply unconscionable.

The Diplomatic Conference that will determine the Treaty for the Blind’s fate begins this week. To stand up to the private interests behind this assault on the treaty, Benetech is working with a coalition of groups, including the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, as well as the American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) We’re using multiple channels to fight back against the proposed changes, including a We the People White House petition aimed at getting the Obama Administration to take action.

If you’re as concerned as I am and want to help, please sign the  petition and help spread the word. This treaty was supposed to be a meaningful step forward for the blind and print disabled community worldwide. Now, it could have a drastically negative impact on us all. If we can get to 100,000 signatures, the White House is required to respond to the petition and will, hopefully, take positive action.

Our coalition will do everything it can to secure a treaty that both protects the access we have now (and with it the important role libraries play) and will benefit people with print disabilities around the world. I hope you’ll join us. We can’t let private interests win out over social good.



  1. Reading Mr. Fruchterman’s Backtalk above, one might query how the notion of commercial availability got into the WIPO VIP Treaty in the first place. One explanation is simple: The World Blind Union put it there. In WIPO SCCR 18/7 JUNE 2009 at Paragraph 155 the official WIPO Secretariat report states:

    155. The Representative of the World Blind Union (WBU) expressed its appreciation to the
    Delegations of Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay for their role in mentoring the treaty proposal.

    The raison d’être of the Committee was to protect the legitimate rights of rightsholders, the
    creators, and at the same time protect the general public interest. The campaign on behalf of
    visually impaired persons did not jeopardize the economic rights of rightsholders.

    If a rightsholder decided to produce any of its works in accessible formats the proposed
    exceptions to those rights would be automatically null and void.