6 August 2021

Equal Education Law Centre and International Commission of Jurists advocate to ensure that South Africa’s copyright law allows for enhanced accessibility of reading material to persons with disabilities

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), in a joint submission, urged the South African Parliament to act to ensure that reading materials are made more widely accessible to persons with disabilities and that the country’s copyright laws are amended to advance rather than impede that objective.

The submission on the Copyright Amendment Bill [B13B-2017] (“the Bill”) to the Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry, urges the South African government to meet its obligations under international human rights law to the rights to education and participation in cultural life in particular by ensuring that the provisions allow for the production and distribution of accessible copies of books without necessarily securing the permission of copyright holders.

The organizations in their submission call on Parliament to apply both international human rights law and international copyright law in crafting amendments to our existing copyright regime. These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled (Marrakesh Treaty).

Parliament should ensure that international human rights law is not construed in legislation in a manner that would subordinate South Africa’s international human rights obligations to international copyright law and international trade law.  Instead, the two can and should interpreted harmoniously. The submission supports the proposed section 19D of the Bill which would carve out an exception to ordinary copyright law protections to allow for easier access to reading materials for all persons with disabilities, including blind and visually impaired persons and other persons with print disabilities. Such a provision is sorely needed and in fact legally required to protect and fulfil the rights of persons with disabilities.

The ICJ and EELC also call upon Parliament and the National Executive to take all necessary steps to secure South Africa’s accession to the Marrakesh Treaty, which provides expressly for the obligation of States to enact legal provisions creating exceptions to copyright law in order to ensure better access to reading materials for persons with disabilities. The Treaty recognizes the continuing shortage of available works in accessible format copies for persons with visual and other print disabilities and allows for the production of accessible copies of books without the permission of copyright holders.

The organizations submissions underscore the importance of Parliament’s role in ensuring the adherence to, and development and implementation of international human rights law and standards when it undertakes to interpret constitutional rights and draft legislative provisions in the ordinary course of its mandate.

While the call for comments by Parliament is commendable, the legislative process to amend the Copyright Act has been ongoing for many years. For this reason, Blind SA, represented by SECTION27, have approached the High Court to test the constitutionality of the Act given that it fails to provide for exceptions to copyright law that allow for easier access to reading materials for persons with disabilities. The ICJ, represented by EELC, has applied to intervene in these court proceedings to make submissions along the same lines as those made jointly to Parliament.



The ICJ and EELC’s submission to Parliament is available here.

The ICJ’s Founding Affidavit in the High Court is available here.

For Media queries, please contact:

Tad Khosa (Media and Communications Coordinator, Equal Education Law Centre) – tad@eelawcentre.org.za

Tanveer Jeewa (Legal and Communications Officer, International Commission of Jurists) – tanveer@icj.org