Copyright waiver for visually impaired persons greenlit by EU court

The Marrakesh Treaty requires its signatories to provide exceptions to copyright rules so that visually-impaired people can get access to works, in a braille or other print-disabled format. [Shutterstock]

A copyright waiver that is intended to facilitate visually-impaired access to literature has been given the go-ahead by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), after eight member states filed a dispute.

The European Union is now free to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty, a 2013 agreement that requires countries to allow published works to be reproduced without the authorisation of the rights holder, so that visually impaired people can access them.

Eight member states (Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Romania and the United Kingdom) said that the European Commission did not have the exclusive competence to conclude the treaty, so the EU executive turned to the ECJ.

In an opinion issued today (14 February), the Luxembourg court said that the Commission does indeed have the right to act on behalf of the member states, not because the executive has the exclusive competence over commercial trade policy but because the treaty affects an area already governed by common rules.

Commission stalling on copyright waiver for visually impaired persons

The European Commission has asked the Court of Justice (ECJ) for legal advice about an international treaty it signed in 2014 that helps provide access to literature for visually impaired people through copyright exemptions. But it is yet to ratify the agreement.

European copyright legislation allows the EU member states the option to introduce the kind of exception made mandatory by the Marrakesh Treaty. The Court concluded that this option is granted by the EU legislature and that the EU has exclusive competence regarding international agreements that affect or alter the scope of its common rules.

The Court’s statement said “once the treaty is concluded, all the member states will be required to introduce the exception or limitation for persons with a disability”.

It added that “since the Marrakesh Treaty may affect the directive on copyright or alter its scope, the Court concludes that the EU has exclusive competence and that the treaty may be concluded by the EU acting on its own.”

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The Commission was authorised in 2012 by the European Council to participate in the Marrakesh negotiations and it duly adopted the treaty on 27 June 2013. The treaty needed ratification from 20 signatories to enter into force, which happened on 30 September 2016.

But the executive has been slow to make progress and the Council of Europe has already accused it of dragging its feet. Today’s opinion should go some way toward speeding up the process.

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