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The government is however planning to amend a half-a-century old law to allow the conversion of copyrighted books into the Braille format without any royalty and licence fees.
The amendment to the Copyright Act of 1957 has been approved by the cabinet on 24 December and due to be tabled in Parliament in the Budget session—does precious little about it.
People who are visually challenged can read printed material only when it is converted into older formats such as Braille or newer and more flexible audio and electronic formats.
Under the current legal regime, conversion and use of printed material into Braille requires permission of the copyright holder, which is costly and time-consuming.
The amendment, while making conversion to Braille free,can also create a copyright board that may can licences for conversion to audio and electronic formats.
“The amendment would have been useful 20 years ago, when Braille was the primary format for the visually challenged. In present-day technological age, Braille is obsolete, expensive to print and not portable,” said Rahul Cherian, co-founder and policy head of Inclusive Planet, a non-governmental organization that works with the visually challenged.
"India has nearly 36 million visually impaired people, while 60 million people suffers from dyslexia and another 2.4 million people from cerebral palsy," according to the World Blind Union.
C. Nisha Singh, officer on special duty at Delhi University’s equal opportunity cell, also declared "the most widely used screen-reading software, JAWS, is available at an exorbitant license fee of Rs45,000."
“The provision of seeking a licence from the copyright board to convert books into electronic formats is like a cruel joke,” said Rakesh Kumar Kushwaha, a visually impaired student of the University of Delhi. “What if I have to read 10 books for my graduation? Do you expect me to go to copyright board each time to seek licence or permission?”
But G.R. Raghavendra, the registrar of copyrights at the ministry of human resource development, also pointed out that fear of piracy cahave held the government back. “The government has to keep in mind various stakeholders like visually challenged, (as well as) publishers, software makers before amending the Copyright Act,” he said.
Sunanda Ghosh, senior vice-president of publishing house Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd, said converting books into digitized version is an uncharted territory. “Publishers and software makers are wary of loosening copyright restrictions as it might result in piracy and eat into their sales,” she said.
Sam Tarapurwala from Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged, Mumbai, said “We got an amazing response. Sage publishing house gave us a blanket permission while Oxford (University Press) and Cambridge (University Press) are shortlisting the books which would be outside the copyright law. But the government must realize that we cannot approach all the publishers for permission to convert their books into electronic formats,” Tarapurwala said.
Non-profit organizations like Inclusive Planet, Centre for Internet and Society and DAISY Forum spearheaded the Right to Read campaign in September 2009, which sought to amend the Copyright Act to increase access to copyrighted works for the visually challenged.
A total number of 57 nations have made exceptions to their copyright laws to allow the conversion into formats accessible to the visually challenged.
Various nations such as Cameroon, Chile, Indonesia and Iceland have limited their exceptions to the production of Braille copies. But 21 other nations,including Australia, France and Germany, allow conversion into electronic format as well.
Amendments in the US have also allowed school texts and educational material for children to be converted by some authorized agencies into electronic or other formats accessible by the visually impaired free of charge.
In Britain, an exception to the copyright law in 2003 allowed producers of accessible material for the visually impaired to make multiple accessible copies of copyright material in any format.
The World Blind Union has also proposed an international treaty to harmonize exceptions to copyright law to resolve these differences.