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Copyright laws shut out blind and visually impaired South Africans from the world of books


Julia Chaskalson is a communications officer at SECTION27. SECTION27 is a member of the Fix the Patent Laws coalition.

The magic of books is, for the blind or visually disabled, simply just out of reach, kept behind an act that is not locally or globally supported.

Around the time when World Book Day was being consecrated as the flagship day for books and reading on the international calendar, South Africa was drafting its new Constitution.

Although the 1996 Constitution prohibits any unfair discrimination on the grounds of disability, and provides for the rights to equality, dignity, education, freedom of expression, language and participation in the cultural life of one’s choice for all, South African law has a major oversight about accessing books: the absence of an exception to copyright for people with disabilities.

This would allow the conversion of texts into accessible formats without having to obtain the permission of the copyright holder.

As things stand, World Book Day on 23 April is not a day of celebration for people who are blind or visually impaired, but a reminder of how difficult it can be to access books and other published works in accessible formats, such as Braille, audio, large print or the Digitally Accessible Information System (Daisy).

An act of exclusion

Barriers to having books in accessible formats are largely because of the Copyright Act of 1978, which does not include an exception or limitation to copyright to allow people who are blind or visually impaired to take books – available in libraries or bookstores for sighted people – and “format-shift” the text into accessible formats without the permission of the copyright holder.

The process of format-shifting can also be lengthy and costly. Where a sighted person can go to a library or bookshop and enjoy the multitude and magic of worlds and information in books relatively easily, a blind person must buy the print book and contact the copyright holder – usually the publisher – for permission to convert the text into Braille.

Blind SA, an organisation that represents blind communities, estimates that only 10% of these requests are approved. Some copyright holders reject requests to convert a text into accessible formats, but most requests are simply ignored.

If such a request is granted, the individual must – at their own expense – pay for a master copy of the book to be retyped and converted into Braille, even though many thousands of these master copies already exist elsewhere in the world.

Because the Copyright Act also prevents the cross-border exchange of accessibly formatted copies of books, each and every time a blind person wants to convert a book into Braille, they must start from scratch. For many, the process is simply impossible. In the majority of cases where copyright holders are unresponsive to requests, a person who is blind or visually impaired may be criminalised or sued if they go ahead and convert a book into a format that allows them to read and enjoy the text.

Worse than appalling

Blind communities have called the status quo a “book famine”, and only an estimated 0.5% of published works in South Africa are available in accessible formats.

Although this is not a problem unique to South Africa, blind people here are particularly disadvantaged. According to the World Blind Union, about 10% of all published works are available in accessible formats globally, making South Africa 9.5% lower than an already appalling world average.

Being able to access books when one needs them is something that many sighted people take for granted. Blind pupils are guaranteed school textbooks in accessible formats, but if they want to expand their research or read for recreation and access other Braille books, the pickings are often slim.

Tertiary students who are blind or visually impaired have to request permission from copyright holders to convert textbooks and reading packs into Braille, which can sometimes take so long that a student misses the deadline or exam for which the books were required.

People who are blind have described difficulties in accessing novels, collections of poetry or books for recreational reading in accessible formats.

Thandile Butana, development officer at Blind SA, has spoken about the difficulties of raising a sighted child when she herself is blind: “My six-year-old son often asks me why I cannot read him a bedtime story. But the stories he likes reading are not available to me in Braille, so I cannot read to him.”

The magic of books is, for blind or visually disabled people, simply just out of reach, kept behind copyright barriers that are not locally or globally supported.

Indeed, the necessity of an exception to copyright for persons with disabilities is not contested. Despite several rounds of debate about the Copyright Amendment Bill in Parliament, an exception to copyright for persons with disabilities, contained in Section 19D of the bill, is supported.

Section 19D would allow people who are blind to buy or borrow a book and immediately convert it into an accessible format and start the process of broadening access to global libraries of accessibly formatted books from entities such as Book Share or the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Accessible Books Consortium. The journey ahead for this in South Africa, however, looks to be a long one, with no end date in sight for Parliament’s deliberations on the bill.

This is why Blind SA, represented by SECTION27, has taken the government to court. People who are blind cannot afford to wait indefinitely for Parliament before they can access books in accessible formats.

In September 2021, a high court order declared the Copyright Act of 1978 unconstitutional, and ordered that the proposed Section 19D from the Copyright Amendment Bill be immediately “read in” or added to the current act so that people who are blind or visually impaired can more easily access the books they want to read.

On 12 May, the Constitutional Court will decide whether or not to confirm this order and make the exception to copyright for persons with disabilities immediate.

If the Constitutional Court does confirm the order, the book famine will not be reversed overnight, but the books accessible to blind persons will be far more plentiful. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.



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