No matter how well-intentioned, sometimes drafters of a new law fail because they have not successfully put themselves in the shoes of those whom the law is meant to benefit. In such cases, these laws can cause more harm than good.
This is the case with certain provisions of the proposed Copyright Amendment Bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha on April 19, 2010. HRD Minister Kapil Sibal had his heart in the right place when he decided to introduce a provision in the Copyright Act, 1957, to allow the 70 million Indians with visual impairment, dyslexia, cerebral palsy and other persons who cannot read printed material due to disabilities ("persons with print disabilities") to convert reading material into formats that they can "read". But the wording of the proposed amendment is completely inadequate and in fact, to a large extent even runs contrary to the intention of alleviating the problems of persons with print disabilities. Here are the key problems with the proposed amendment:
"Specially designed" formats: The Copyright Act, 1957 as it stands today does not explicitly permit persons with print disabilities to convert reading material into formats accessible to them without violating the rights of the copyright holder. In what appears to be an attempt to address these lacunae, the proposed amendment introduces an exception that will allow automatic conversion of reading material into "specially designed" formats such as Braille and sign language. Unfortunately, this will not benefit millions of persons affected by cerebral palsy, dyslexia and low vision and the millions of visually impaired persons who do not know Braille. To a person with a print disability who does not know Braille, the proposed amendment is as much help as a law that gives a person who knows only English, access to hitherto unavailable books, but in Chinese! For reading material to be accessible to them, such persons require the material to be available in mainstream formats such as audio, reading material with large fonts and e-texts compatible with screen reading software which are not "specially designed" formats. The drafters have obviously not understood that even modern day Braille production is dependent on the material being first converted into mainstream electronic formats such as MS Word because Braille translation software requires input in such formats. Given the above, the exception in favour only of "specially designed" formats is limiting and counterproductive and shows failure to take into account the advances in technology since Braille was devised in the early 1800s.
Problematic licensing system: For conversion to non-specialised and mainstream formats as mentioned above, the amendment proposes a cumbersome and time consuming licensing system which will permit only organisations working primarily for the benefit of the disabled to undertake conversion and distribution. This will prevent educational institutions, self help groups, other NGOs and print disabled individuals themselves, who at present undertake the bulk of the conversion, from undertaking conversion and distribution of reading material in accessible format. The proposed provision will essentially bring the entire conversion ecosystem to a halt and send persons with print disabilities to the dark ages.
Violation of fundamental rights: The proposed amendment violates the constitutional guarantee of equality, since it discriminates between those blind persons who know Braille and other print disabled persons (including the blind) who do not. Even otherwise, by failing to institute a meaningful copyright exception that would enable access to reading materials by the print disabled, the state will continue to fail in its duty to guarantee a meaningful right to life.
Members of the National Access Alliance, consisting of disability rights organisations and lawyers have been campaigning for the amendment to be reworded to ensure that it: a) allows the conversion of books into all formats that can be used by persons with print disabilities depending on their disability and comfort; b) allows all stakeholders including organisations, educational institutions and the persons with disability themselves to undertake the conversion; and c) ensures that the conversion of reading materials into accessible formats is not subject to red-tape and delay in their availability.
The members of the standing committee which will examine this amendment should close their eyes or incapacitate their hands for a minute and then try to read a book. This will place them in the shoes of the intended beneficiaries of the new law and help them appreciate their real concerns.