New Delhi: In a well-meaning but short-sighted measure, the government plans to amend a half-a-century old law to allow the conversion of copyrighted books into the Braille format without any royalty and licence fees.

Tackling odds: A visually impaired man working with a dictation software at the equal opportunity cell of the University of Delhi. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

But the gesture has come a couple of decades too late. Most visually handicapped people, who would have benefited from the change, have already moved on from Braille to electronic and audio formats, screen-reading software and digital talking books, experts said. Conversion to these formats remains prohibitively expensive. Yet, the amendment to the Copyright Act of 1957—approved by the cabinet on 24 December and due to be tabled in Parliament in the Budget session—does precious little about it.

People with visual handicaps can read printed material only when it is converted into older formats such as Braille or newer and more flexible audio and electronic formats.

Under the current legal regime, conversion and use of printed material into Braille requires permission of the copyright holder, which is costly and time-consuming.

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The amendment, while making conversion to Braille free, would also create a copyright board that would issue licences for conversion to audio and electronic formats.

“The amendment would have been useful 20 years ago, when Braille was the primary format for the visually challenged. In present-day technological age, Braille is obsolete, expensive to print and not portable," said Rahul Cherian, co-founder and policy head of Inclusive Planet, a non-governmental organization that works with the visually challenged. He added that the amendment would have virtually no impact on dyslexics and people with low vision or paralysis, who cannot use Braille and depend entirely on audio/electronic formats.

India has nearly 36 million visually impaired people, while 60 million people suffer from dyslexia and another 2.4 million people from cerebral palsy, according to the World Blind Union.

C. Nisha Singh, officer on special duty at Delhi University’s equal opportunity cell, said the most widely used screen-reading software, JAWS, is available at an exorbitant license fee of Rs45,000.

“The provision of seeking a licence from the copyright board to convert books into electronic formats is like a cruel joke," said Rakesh Kumar Kushwaha, a visually impaired student of the University of Delhi. “What if I have to read 10 books for my graduation? Do you expect me to go to copyright board each time to seek licence or permission?"

But G.R. Raghavendra, the registrar of copyrights at the ministry of human resource development, pointed out that fear of piracy could have held the government back. “The government has to keep in mind various stakeholders like visually challenged, (as well as) publishers, software makers before amending the Copyright Act," he said.

Sunanda Ghosh, senior vice-president of publishing house Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd, also said converting books into digitized version was an uncharted territory. “Publishers and software makers are wary of loosening copyright restrictions as it might result in piracy and eat into their sales," she said.

Nonetheless, Sam Tarapurwala from Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged, Mumbai, has begun a signature campaign covering authors and publishers who have allowed their books to be converted into electronic formats. “We got an amazing response. Sage publishing house gave us a blanket permission while Oxford (University Press) and Cambridge (University Press) are shortlisting the books which would be outside the copyright law. But the government must realize that we cannot approach all the publishers for permission to convert their books into electronic formats," Tarapurwala said.

Non-profit organizations such as Inclusive Planet, Centre for Internet and Society and DAISY Forum spearheaded the Right to Read campaign in September 2009, which sought to amend the Copyright Act to increase access to copyrighted works for the visually challenged.

A total of 57 countries have made exceptions to their copyright laws to allow the conversion into formats accessible to the visually challenged.

Countries such as Cameroon, Chile, Indonesia and Iceland have limited their exceptions to the production of Braille copies. But 21 other countries, including Australia, France and Germany, allow conversion into electronic format as well.

Amendments in the US have allowed school texts and educational material for children to be converted by some authorized agencies into electronic or other formats accessible by the visually impaired free of charge.

In Britain, an exception to the copyright law in 2003 allowed producers of accessible material for the visually impaired to make multiple accessible copies of copyright material in any format.

The World Blind Union has proposed an international treaty to harmonize exceptions to copyright law to resolve these differences.