The importance of encouraging reading and literacy can never be understated. However, for those with print disabilities, their right to access reading is often overlooked. While charities and organisations have strenuously worked to rectify this situation, publishers are also working to meet their own responsibilities in this area. To this end, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has been developed over the past year, and was signed just before the Frankfurt Book Fair 2010 by the European Writers Congress (EWC), the Federation of European Publishers (FEP), the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations (IFFRO) and the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical publishers (STM) in conjunction with the Publishers Association and the Publishers Licensing Society on behalf of publishers, which have agreed the terms with reading disabled stakeholder groups including the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) and the European Blind Union. The MOU's ultimate goal is to increase access to works for people with print disabilities, in particular by establishing a network of Trusted Intermediaries (TIs) to enhance this access across Europe.
The Memorandum of Understanding on access to works by people with print disabilities was agreed upon with the recognition that the print disabled have a right to read and access works, and that publishers' efforts to facilitate this should be supported and encouraged. The intention is to develop a network of Trusted Intermediaries, whose goal is to make available accessible formats of works, such as Braille or DAISY, and to ensure that these works can be easily transferred across EU Member States under licensing agreements, and only in the event that there is no commercially available version of those works. The MOU offers a pragmatic solution to ensure that the print disabled have equal access to reading materials, while supporting publishers' rights in retaining control over their works, and their efforts to continue creating accessible content.
For those living with print disabilities, accessible content is vital. It is produced in a variety of formats, both in print and digital, and includes large-print or Braille books, audio versions of works, the addition of text descriptions for images, or the use of navigation tools to guide the reader through the work. Many publishers already convert their works into accessible formats, and a bank of accessible content is growing across Europe. However, in the instances where these works are not commercially available, the MOU eases the movement of accessible content between EU Member States on behalf of rightsholders and the print disabled.
The most crucial aspect of the MOU is its solution, which hinges on the use of Trusted Intermediaries. A TI acts as go-between for two parties, both of which place their trust in the TI to carry out a specific role. In this instance, the TI operates on behalf of the rightsholder, normally the publisher, who is allowing their works to be transferred, and the end user, who is the print-disabled reader receiving the work. The TI itself could be an association for the blind or a reproduction rights organisation, but it must be formally accredited through a range of requirements, which include compliance with copyright law and that it enters into a licence with rightsholder representatives when dealing with cross-border distribution of works. TIs should work towards improving standards for print disabled readers in providing them with the most appropriate and helpful materials to read, plus educating stakeholders about access issues. The TI system means that both parties' interests are represented.
The ultimate aim of the MOU is to encourage the campaign for all works to have accessible formats, which can be sold at the same time and at the same price as regular works created for those readers without print disabilities. Publishers are currently working towards this goal, but barriers must be overcome. The MOU recognises the fact that higher costs and tight regulations can, at times, inhibit publishers' development of accessible content.
Another goal envisaged through the development of this MOU is that it will stimulate the creation of an online European accessible ebooks service, which will support the underlying goal of increasing access to print disabled works. FEP and the representatives of the print disabled will work to launch an online catalogue, which will list commercially available accessible publications, public domain works and works created under a national copyright exception or licence. The MOU makes provision for the catalogue to potentially develop into a distributed service, allowing authorised users to search and receive accessible ebooks. The signatories do recognise the fact that this is a major task, but feel that the benefits provided by the catalogue will push this agenda forward.
The MOU is the product of a long-standing recognition that the print disabled have a legislative and moral right to those materials that many of us take for granted. Reading and literacy are the building blocks of knowledge economies, contributing towards social cohesion, employment and creativity. The MOU is by no means the final resolution to enhancing equality of access to reading materials, but it provides a long-awaited practical solution, which can be easily implemented by rightsholders and print disabled representatives across the EU. Once this is achieved, the entire issue will move forward substantially, with long-term resolutions in our grasp.
Victoria Lustigman is Policy & Communications Officer, the Publishers Association. For further information, please contact Graham Taylor at email@example.com.