Scott C. LaBarre and the Great Book Famine

A segment of society has been prevented from accessing books and information the majority of the population takes for granted.

Scott C. LaBarre

Scott C. LaBarre

Mike Selby

The Great Book Famine has almost come to an end. The battle to end it pitched citizens against their leaders, individuals and against corporations, and compassion against greed. The struggle to eradicate it lasted more than 30 years, and in the end it took a lawyer, a musician, and a Moroccan politician to stamp it out completely.

Surprisingly, the Great Book Famine hit all countries including Canada and the United States — two of the richest nations on the planet. The “famine” refers to a segment of society that have been prevented from accessing books and information the majority of the population takes for granted. This segment is not denied access from reading due to their economic status, colour of their skin, or their religion.

They are denied access because they are blind.

This fact seems odd. Not only has Braille been around for almost 200 years, but advances in technology have always kept individuals with low vision and no vision in mind. A recent journal article praises such adaptive resources which include “specially designed digital players, smart phones, tape players, large print copies, text to speech, text to Braille, audiobooks, scanning equipment and conversion software.” The article states how each of these aides help “blind or vision-impaired persons now access news, educational materials, fiction, sports coverage and blog posts.”

While no one will argue the benefits of the above technologies, what is missed is the actual material a blind individual hopes to read, which is alarmingly less than 5% of all published items — and that is only in developed countries. Poorer nations (in which the percentage of blind people is much larger) have less than 1% of printed works available to them.

According to World Health Organization statistics, 90% of the The 285 million blind and low-vision people (currently called “print-disabled) have access to less than 1% of all printed works. Combine this with UNESCO’s latest report which states that 98% of children with disabilities in developing nations are not welcome in any school. The impact this has on humanity is substantial.

This is where Scott C. LaBarre comes in.  A lawyer based in Denver, LaBarre contracted a virus at a young age which robbed him off his sight. Always an avid reader, he “felt all the books had been yanked from my hands.” Well-meaning doctors, teachers, and librarians told him not to despair as books were available in Braille and audio versions. LaBarre quickly discovered that the titles available were limited, and getting them was slow.  He had hoped to major in Spanish when he entered university, but had to drop that as none of the required texts were in Braille. He switched his major to government, and then attended law school, which is where he discovered the exact cause of the famine: copyright.

A jumble of international copyright laws created to protect intellectual property had unintentionally made converting a work into an accessible format so difficult it remains amazing that any exist at all. For example, if Canada converts ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ into an audio format for the print disabled, that audio format could not leave Canada. If the U.S. wanted it, they would have to create their own audio format, which could not leave their borders. More than 60 countries speak English, but copyright law meant they would have to create their own accessible format. This goes for Braille and large print editions as well (FNB’s vice president likes to use ’50 Shades of Grey’ as an example—”think of all those embarrassed narrators.”)

LaBarre has spent his legal career trying to end this barrier, but it hasn’t been easy.  Invited to present his case at the United Nations in Geneva, the international delegates spent two days arguing which order the items on the agenda should go in. He also found a team of lawyers attempting to block his proposal. This legal force represented the interests of major businesses, such as Caterpillar, GE, Exon Mobile, IBM, American and International Publishers, Adobe and the Motion Picture Association of America.  LaBarre began to lose hope, wondering “how in the world could a group of blind people fight such large corporations and strong nations?”

But they did. To combat these seemingly insurmountable odds, they attacked on numerous fronts. The NFB posted gigantic billboards across the United States which asked “Why are Exxon and GE Blocking Books for the Blind.” Musician Stevie Wonder met with the heads of numerous corporations, convincing them not only to stop blocking LaBarre’s proposal, but to start supporting it instead.

All this would result in the 2013 Diplomatic Conference of the World Intellectual Property Organization held in Marrakesh, Morocco. Delegates from 57 countries and disability rights advocates were hoping to create an enforceable treaty, but it soon dissolved into a lot of disagreement and bickering.  Mustafa Kalfi, Morocco’s Minister of Communication (and the conference moderator) lost all patience. He announced the closure of Morocco’s airport and public transportation until a workable treaty was agreed upon. Stevie Wonder spoke via satellite,  promising a private concert for the delegates, but only after they signed an agreement.

LaBarre had the final word, stating please “do not let the blind of the world down.’

On July 27, 2013, the Treaty of Marrakesh was born, a new tool to “increase access to information for millions of visually impaired people around the world, especially in developing countries.”

As of today, 79 countries have signed the treaty, but 20 more are needed for it to be ratified. While the Treaty of Marrakesh is a huge step, it is still only a step.

The Great Book Famine continues.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library