On World Book/Copyright Day, activists urge Constitutional Court to confirm that Copyright Act is unconstitutional for limiting access to books in accessible formats for persons with visual disabilities.
20 April 2022, Johannesburg – BLIND SA and SECTION27 use World Book/Copyright Day as an opportunity to highlight the unconstitutionality of the Copyright Act of 1978 for limiting access to books for persons who are blind or visually impaired. BLIND SA and SECTION27 are challenging South Africa’s copyright regime so that every person who is blind or visually impaired can – in formats that are accessible to them – immediately get access to the vast libraries of published works available to sighted people. This watershed case will be heard by the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on 12 May 2022.
The High Court of South Africa (Gauteng Division, Pretoria) found the Copyright Act unconstitutional in a September 2021 case brought by BLIND SA and SECTION27, for violating the rights of persons who are blind or visually impaired, in particular their rights to equality, dignity, basic and further education, freedom of expression, language and participation in the cultural life of one’s choice. It is now up to the Constitutional Court to confirm this order of unconstitutionality and ‘read in’ or add a section to the current Copyright Act which includes an exception to copyright law specifically for persons with disabilities. Should the Constitutional Court confirm the High Court’s order, the ‘reading in’ of this exception would be immediate, and would instantly give persons who are blind or visually-impaired the ability to convert books into accessible formats without the risk of criminal sanction.
The respondents in the case – the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces and the President of the Republic of South Africa – are not opposing the application.
Many countries around the world have exceptions in their Copyright law for persons with disabilities. In the absence of such an exception here, persons who are blind or visually disabled have to ask for permission from the copyright holder to convert a book into an accessible format like Braille, audio, large print or Digitally Accessible Information System (DAISY). This process is not only very costly, but can take a long time – and requests for format shifting are often denied or ignored. As things stand currently, persons who are blind or visually disabled experience a Book Famine, with fewer than 0,5% of published works in South Africa made available in accessible formats such as Braille.
An exception like this is not widely contested globally or even locally – proposed section 19D in the Copyright Amendment Bill would allow persons with disabilities to convert published works into accessible formats without the consent of the copyright holder. Although section 19D is widely accepted as a powerful tool to promote human rights for people with disabilities, this remedy is delayed by heated debates about other sections of the Bill. As such, we will be asking the court to ‘read in’ section 19D with immediate effect so that people who are blind or visually impaired can access works under copyright in accessible formats. We have further asked that the reading in should be made permanent after 12 months if parliament has not yet finalised the legislative process for the Copyright Amendment Bill.
World Book/Copyright Day – celebrated globally on 23 April – is, for many, a day to celebrate the worlds of possibilities provided by books. On this day, however, persons who are blind or visually-impaired are reminded of the difficulties they face when trying to convert books into formats they can read.
BLIND SA and SECTION27 believe that by confirming the Copyright Act as unconstitutional, the Constitutional Court has the power to reverse decades long discrimination against people who are blind or visually-impaired.
BLIND SA, represented by SECTION27 will advance our arguments before the highest court in the country on 12 May 2022. Members of the two organisations and partners to the case will peacefully picket outside the Constitutional Court that day to protest the discrimination caused by our current Copyright Act, to show their support for the case.
You can read our heads of argument for the case here: https://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/BlindSA-v-Minister-of-Trade-Industry-and-Competition-and-Others-Applicants-heads-of-argument-2022.02.17-rd.pdf
Follow our social media channels for the #CountdownToConstitutionalCourt and other updates about the campaign to #EndTheBookFamine: @section27news @BlindSA_NGO.
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