The government has delayed legislation that had been due to be introduced in the spring sitting to make it easier for visually impaired to access books.
In December, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield announced changes to Australian copyright law that are required as part of the Marrakesh Treaty, a treaty Australia and more than 50 other nations signed in 2013 to allow copies of works to be made in a more accessible format. Just 5% of books in Australia are accessible to blind and vision-impaired people. Once the changes are made, publishers could import or sell books translated into braille from overseas, giving Australians access to millions more titles.
An exposure draft of the legislation released last year included not only this change, but also archiving and licensing changes for libraries and educational institutions, and a safe harbour protection to indemnify search engines, universities and libraries for their users’ copyright infringement.
The legislation never made it through the last Parliament and was expected to be introduced in the first few weeks of the 45th Parliament, ahead of the treaty coming into force at the end of September. But the legislation wasn’t included in the government’s draft legislative agenda for the spring sitting weeks, and the government has insisted that the changes are not essential in order to comply with the treaty.
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“Australia already complies with the Marrakesh Treaty. The bill and other regulation changes will further enhance access to copyright works for people with disabilities,” a spokesperson for Fifield told Crikey in a statement. “The government will introduce the bill at the earliest opportunity. ”
Vision Australia, the largest provider for people who are blind or have low vision, is understandably frustrated with the delay. Policy adviser Bruce Maguire told Crikey the organisation was “very disappointed” by the delay.
“Australia had been among the first countries to ratify the treaty in December last year. Nine months later, they not only haven’t implemented it, but it looks like they won’t be implementing it any time soon, which is a great disappointment for us, a great disappointment for people who are blind or have other print disabilities, and I think a great disappointment for the parliament,” he said.
“Passing this legislation now would have been a great example of how the new parliament with its new make-up could work for all Australians. The first opportunity, they’ve shown that they can’t.”
Crikey has heard from multiple sources that the delay might not be related to the Marrakesh changes. According to sources, there has been some controversy over the safe harbour provisions in the legislation, and a push back from the copyright lobby groups against these provisions. This has been notable in the lobby’s recent strong pushback against fair use proposals put forward by the Productivity Commission. The Department of Communications has not published the submissions to the draft legislation to indicate the views on the proposed safe harbour changes.
The Australian Copyright Council submission is public, however, and the organisation expressed strong support for the Marrakesh Treaty, and changing regulations to accommodate the implementation of the treaty. In a separate submission, the Australian Copyright Agency said that it did not support extending safe harbour as proposed in the legislation.