Tuesday 28 May

23 April 2024 marks World Book and Copyright Day, a day UNESCO selected to annually celebrate the written word, promote literacy, and raise awareness around the importance of copyright laws. However, for persons who are blind and visually impaired living in South Africa, there is still much to be done before celebrating this day, as South Africa’s key copyright legislation needs to be urgently amended.

The Copyright Act 98 of 1978 regulates copyright law in South Africa and in terms of this Act, anyone who wanted to convert a book into a different format, such as Braille, audio, or large print, had to obtain the consent of the copyright holder. However, this placed a very heavy and unfair burden on persons who are blind and visually impaired, as it is not always possible to find a copyright holder, and even once found, requests for consent were often ignored or refused. If a person proceeded to convert the material without such consent, the Copyright Act criminalised this action, and individuals risked being fined or even imprisoned.

These challenges have contributed towards the so called “Book Famine”, in which less than 0.5% of published works are available in formats that persons who are blind or visually impaired can read in South Africa. This has had a devasting impact, as learners who are blind or visually impaired have not always had access to all their textbooks for each subject. University students who are blind or visually impaired have also, at times, been forced to convert prescribed books into formats they can read, sometimes without the consent of the copyright holder. Even reading for pleasure has been severely limited, as the variety of books available for persons who are blind and visually impaired was was so small. 

In September 2022, in a case brought by SECTION27 on behalf of Blind SA, the Constitutional Court declared the Copyright Act unconstitutional for the way it discriminated against persons who are blind and visually impaired. The Court read-in its own exceptions into the Act that would allow persons who are blind or visually impaired to convert materials into formats they could read without the consent of the copyright holder. However, this was just an interim solution, and Parliament was ordered to fix the defective Act within 24 months. This deadline expires in less than 6 months.

On 29 February 2024, the National Assembly voted in favour of the Copyright Amendment Bill (CAB), which amends the Copyright Act, and ended the Parliamentary process around the Bill. The CAB now sits on the President’s desk to be signed and enacted into law. Once this is done, the amended Copyright Act will introduce changes that will allow persons with disabilities to convert works into formats they can read without the consent of the copyright holder.

However, the amended Copyright Act will also enable South Africa to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty which will allow persons who are blind or visually impaired to engage in the cross-border exchange of reading materials, thereby unlocking thousands of titles in formats they can read.

SECTION27 and BlindSA therefore urge the President to urgently assent to the Bill and we call on the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition to urgently facilitate the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty. Let’s make World Book and Copyright Day accessible to all!


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