Accessibility, the Marrakesh Treaty, eXtyles, and you

Accessibility (in the web context, sometimes abbreviated as a11y) is a general term for designing publications and materials to include as many readers or users as possible. Real-world examples include Braille and large-print editions of books; the use of dyslexic-friendly fonts; closed captioning and descriptive video; text-to-speech software for e-readers; and speech-to-text software for writing without a keyboard.

Accessibility: What and why

In the publishing world, because we deal primarily with textual content, a primary focus of accessibility efforts is improving the accessibility of ebooks and online articles for people with visual or print disabilities, using features such as searchable, re-sizable, and screen-readable tables and equations or descriptive alt-text for images. (For more on accessibility of online materials, see the W3C’s accessibility resources here.)

Not only is making our content more accessible the right thing to do, it’s also increasingly mandated by local, national (e.g., section 508), and international legislation—including the Marrakesh Treaty.

The Marrakesh Treaty

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled (“Marrakesh Treaty” for short) entered into force on September 30, 2016, for the first 20 countries or other entities to ratify the treaty, including Canada, Australia, India, and Brazil. As its full title implies, the Marrakesh Treaty was designed to create a set of mandatory limitations on and exceptions to intellectual property laws that will improve access to published content for people who are blind, visually impaired, and/or otherwise print disabled.

Under the terms of the treaty, the contracting parties—which are primarily individual countries, but can also include supranational entities such as the European Union—agree to introduce agreed-upon, standard limitations and exceptions to their own copyright rules that will allow published works to be reproduced in formats accessible to users who are blind, visually impaired, and/or otherwise print disabled, distributed and made available to those users, and exchanged across borders by organizations that serve them.

The Treaty defines beneficiary persons as those affected by any of a range of disabilities that interfere with effective reading of printed material—not only visual impairments but also print disabilities and any physical disability that prevents holding and manipulating a book.

An eligible work includes “text, notation and/or related illustrations, whether published or otherwise made publicly available in any media” (including audiobooks).

The treaty provides for authorized entities to exchange accessible versions of works across borders. Authorized entities include many nonprofit and government agencies that are authorized or recognized as providing education and information access to beneficiary persons. Under the Marrakesh Treaty, authorized entities have a responsibility to establish that the people they serve are beneficiary persons and that they are providing accessibility services to only those persons, discouraging unauthorized use of the copies they create or handle, and using due care in handling those copies.

In other words, if a publisher working in a country or jurisdiction that has ratified the Marrakesh Treaty is not producing accessible content, other parties can reproduce their content in accessible formats without violating copyright.

A total of 33 contracting parties have ratified the Marrakesh Treaty so far, and another 58 parties—including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU—have signed the treaty but have not yet ratified it.

For a detailed analysis of the Marrakesh Treaty, see Laurence R. Helfer et al.’s The World Blind Union Guide to the Marrakesh Treaty (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Accessibility, eXtyles, and you

If your business is located in or operates in a country or jurisdiction that is a Marrakesh Treaty contracting party, what does that mean for you?

The treaty requires contracting parties to use a three-step test to determine whether or not an exception or limitation is permitted under international copyright and related norms (see treaty summary):

  1. it covers only certain special cases
  2. it does not conflict with the normal exploitation of the work
  3. it does not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the rights holder

In practical terms, publishers and other organizations in Treaty jurisdictions need to provide accessible versions of their content or provide lawful access to allow an authorized entity to do so, and they can’t require those entities to pay an additional fee. It also means that authorized entities must follow the rules imposed by the treaty and, with the exception of their treaty rights to create and distribute accessible copies to beneficiary persons, abide by applicable copyright and intellectual property law.

Clearly, making your content more accessible is in the best interests of your readers, your organization, and the society we share. At the same time, however, building accessibility into your content can seem like a heavy burden on your staff and your budget. Fortunately, a variety of tools exist to make this task easier. We’ve listed some of these under “Resources and Further Reading” below.

Building XML into your content early on—as eXtyles does—is a great first step in making that content more accessible. Why? Because

  • No specific technology can ensure accessibility for unstructured or poorly structured content!
  • Key to accessibility is identifying what things are so they can be interpreted meaningfully and accurately by accessibility tools such as screen readers; with eXtyles, you can apply paragraph and character styles in Word to identify content elements, then export valid XML.
  • XML DTDs such as JATSBITS, or STS include tags for specific accessibility elements such as image descriptions (<long-desc>); eXtyles can help you add and identify these accessibility elements right in your Word file.
  • eXtyles can export equations/formulae as MathML, which prepares them to be searchable, reflowable, and readable by screen readers.
  • eXtyles helps you automate the creation of internal links and navigation landmarks, both essential to making your content accessible.
  • eXtyles helps you wrangle your Word tables and exports them as correctly structured CALS or XHTML tables, so they can be rendered as searchable, reflowable tables and interpreted accurately by screen readers. eXtyles automatically includes scope attributes in XHTML tables to ensure tables can be read easily and correctly by the visually impaired!

Wondering how eXtyles can help you reach your accessibility goals? Contact us to find out more!

Resources & further reading