Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies


Erika Lambert


According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately 314 million people with blindness or visual impairment (PBVIs) living in the world today. Most PBVIs live in developing countries. The majority of PBVIs experience some form of discrimination, whether institutional, environmental, attitudinal or a combination of all three. This has caused PBVIs to experience almost universal marginalization, exclusion and socio-economic disadvantage. In comparison to fully sighted persons, PBVIs are less likely to enter, remain and succeed in school and are more likely to experience ill health, injury, violence, exploitation, unemployment, poverty and premature death. Worldwide development toward an information-based society and its economic counterpart, a knowledge economy, has compounded and exacerbated the marginalization and exclusion of PBVIs from mainstream society. In today’s information society, the creation, distribution, use and manipulation of information is the most significant economic, political and cultural activity. Indeed, the ease with which fully sighted persons in developed countries can access large volumes of knowledge is unprecedented in human history. In the knowledge economy, the ownership of knowledge and information, as determined by the allocation of intellectual property (IP) rights, is the primary source of wealth creation. Current copyright regimes generally have the effect of excluding the socio- economically disadvantaged from accessing the proliferation of knowledge and information on a national and international level, resulting in what has been termed ‘the digital divide.’ Similarly, current copyright regimes generally have the effect of excluding PBVIs from the concentration of knowledge and information in societies in general, creating what may be called ‘the disability divide’. Of course, because most PBVIs live in developing countries and/or experience socio-economic disadvantage, they experience a ‘double divide’. This ‘double divide’ is characterized by an extreme and widespread scarcity of accessible copyright works which is international in nature; in other words, an international book famine. Today, only a very small percentage of commercially published copyright works are made available in accessible formats. For example, in the United Kingdom (UK), it is estimated that only 5% of published titles ever become available in accessible formats (this includes those published directly by publishers and those created by intermediary organizations). Further, it is likely that the percentage of accessible published materials available in developing countries is much lower as a result of the combination of (1) smaller commercial markets for such materials and (2) fewer resources of intermediary organizations and PBVIs themselves to make and distribute accessible formats. This pervasive scarcity of accessible copyright materials forces PBVIs around the world to access only those copyright works which are available in accessible formats, works which may not be pertinent to their reading interests or informational needs. Acknowledging that this book famine is a product of complex social, economic, technological and legal factors, this paper will focus solely on the contributing legal factors; specifically on the role of national and international copyright regimes. This paper will also argue that the negotiation of an international instrument on access to copyright works for PBVIs is an important and necessary step in providing a comprehensive solution to this problem. Finally, this paper will assert that, as a United Nations (UN) organization with a mandate to develop a balanced and accessible international IP system, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is well positioned to lead the global community in the negotiation of such an instrument.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.