Blind SA and Section 27 are using World Book/Copyright Day, which is commemorated on 23 April, to challenge the constitutionality of the Copyright Act.
The lobby groups are arguing the Copyright Act of 1978 is limiting access to books for persons who are blind or visually impaired.
Blind SA and Section 27 are arguing that blind or visually-impaired people must be able to access the same literature found in vast libraries for sighted people.
This watershed case is expected to be heard by the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on 12 May 2022.
The High Court of South Africa (Gauteng Division in Pretoria) found the Copyright Act unconstitutional in a September 2021 case brought by Blind SA and Section 27.
“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,” said the institutions in a joint statement.
Should the Constitutional Court confirm the High Court’s order, the ‘reading in’ of this exception would be immediate, giving instant access for blind and visually impaired people 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,” said the organisations.
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.
Blind SA and Section 27 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.
Compiled by Narissa Subramoney