According to the National Centre of Statistics and Information, there are more than 60,000 persons with disabilities in Oman. 30% of these persons have a sight related disability which means that they cannot easily read written materials. According to the World Blind Union, only 7% of all the books published in the world are available in formats accessible to the visually impaired, such as Braille – and you can bet that in Oman not even 1% of the books available in the country are accessible in such formats.
Technology can provide the visually impaired with numerous opportunities to access to books. It is possible to use screen reader technology to read aloud any text on a computer screen to a blind person or to convert it into refreshable Braille display. This is not only usually economically cheaper than producing a standard Braille version, but it is more practical because traditionally accessible books are heavy and massive in size in comparison to printed books.
However, even though technology can help make books accessible, the Omani Copyright Law makes it an act of copyright infringement for someone to convert a printed book into a format accessible to a visually impaired person if the permission of the author is not acquired. Oman is an extremely small market and it does not make economic sense for publishers to produce and market accessible formats of their books to blind users in Oman. The Omani Copyright Law is probably the most restrictive Copyright Law in the entire Arab World because it does not even allow users to make private copies of protected works for their personal use for any purpose – even if making this copy is necessary for a blind person to read. To make things worse, the Omani Copyright Law allows copyright owners to impose technological protection measures (TPMs) that can stop a blind person from using applications such as screen readers without the permission of the author. If a user circumvents the technological protection measures, he will be in violation of the law irrespective of the purpose for circumvention.
The international community has made serious efforts in recent years to help persons with disabilities overcome the restrictions imposed by copyright. This has led to the adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty for the Visually Impaired. This treaty makes it an obligation on States to include exceptions in their copyright laws that enable the visually impaired to have access to copyright protected works, but unfortunately Oman is yet to accede to this treaty. It is also not clear if Oman can actually join this treaty at all because the Free Trade Agreement Oman signed with the USA greatly limits the way Oman can modify its copyright law. For example, Marrakesh Treaty requires States to make sure that technological protection measures do not stop the visually impaired from using copyright exceptions, but the Free Trade Agreement with the USA puts restrictions on the extent to which Oman may permit the circumvention of technological protection measures which may be in violations of the Marrakesh Treaty.
The unfairness of the Omani Copyright Law towards disabled persons is not only morally wrong, but it could also be seen as a violation of the human rights of disabled persons. Oman is a party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which requires Oman to ensure that disabled persons enjoy the right to education and the right to participate in culture without discrimination. The Omani Copyright Law is lacking on different fronts, but its failure to support disabled persons is a glaring problem that needs to be addressed immediately.