Empowering African Economies: The Case for Disability Exceptions in Copyright Law

09 Sep 2023 | By Ngonidzaishe Gotora
AU Disability Protocol
09 Sep 2023 | By Ngonidzaishe Gotora

Copyright law plays a pivotal role in safeguarding intellectual property and incentivizing creativity and innovation. However, a rigid application of copyright law can inadvertently exclude individuals with disabilities from accessing knowledge and participating in economic activities. African economies, with their rich diversity and potential, have recognized the importance of implementing disability exceptions in copyright law. Nigeria, the continent's largest economy, has already taken steps in this direction. In this blog post, we will explore why African economies can benefit from disability exceptions in their copyright laws, examining Nigeria's progress, Egypt's need, and how this can catalyse growth in emerging economies like Rwanda. We will also discuss the provision for disability exceptions in the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) IPR Protocol and its significance in addressing this growing need.

Disability exceptions are critical to promoting social inclusion, ensuring access to information, and upholding the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). When it comes to copyright law, inclusivity means ensuring that everyone, including individuals with disabilities, has equal access to knowledge, education, and economic opportunities. As it stands, out of the 55 member states of the African Union only Angola, Cameroon, The Central African Republic, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, and Uganda currently have disability provisions in their Copyright legislation - the need has never been greater.

Disability in Africa

Africa is home to a diverse population of over 1.3 billion people, and an estimated 15% of this population consists of PWDs. While this number may vary across countries, the challenges faced by PWDs in accessing copyrighted materials are widespread and substantial.

  1. Limited Access to Education: UNESCO estimates that over 90% of children with disabilities in Africa do not attend school. One of the barriers to their education is the lack of accessible learning materials due to copyright restrictions.
  2. High Unemployment Rates: PWDs in Africa face higher unemployment rates than their non-disabled peers. In South Africa alone, it is estimated that the unemployment rate of persons with disabilities is in excess of 90%, approaching 100% in rural areas. Access to copyrighted materials is crucial for skill development and vocational training, which can help reduce these disparities.
  3. Limited Access to Healthcare Information: PWDs often require specialized healthcare information, but access to copyrighted medical literature and resources is restricted, hindering their ability to make informed decisions about their health.
  4. Cultural Inclusion: PWDs should have the same opportunities to engage with and create cultural content. However, copyright restrictions can impede their participation in cultural and artistic activities.

Nigeria, as both the largest economy and most populous country in Africa, has set an inspiring example by incorporating disability exceptions into its copyright law. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Nigeria has an estimated 25 million people living with disabilities, making up a significant portion of its population. The Nigerian Copyright Act of 2022 recognizes the need for accessible formats for persons with disabilities. This includes provisions for making works available in formats such as Braille, large print, and accessible digital formats. These provisions allow for the creation and distribution of alternative formats of copyrighted works, making it possible for visually impaired individuals to access literature, educational materials, and other important resources. Nigeria's initiative demonstrates the positive impact of disability exceptions, fostering inclusivity while respecting the rights of copyright holders.

Egypt, as the second largest economy in Africa, faces challenges regarding disability exceptions in copyright law. Despite its rich cultural heritage and vibrant literary scene, Egypt's copyright law has not adequately addressed the needs of individuals with disabilities. In 2018, Egypt passed Law No. 175, amending its copyright law, however, the changes did not include specific provisions for disability exceptions. The situation is exacerbated by Egypt's large population of people with disabilities, estimated to be around 12 million of the total population. The lack of accessible formats, such as braille or audio books, hinders their access to education, employment opportunities, and cultural enrichment. The absence of disability exceptions not only hampers the inclusivity of Egyptian society but also limits its potential for economic and social development. Egypt should consider acceding to the Marrakesh Treaty, which provides an international legal framework to facilitate access to printed materials for blind, visually impaired, and otherwise print-disabled individuals.

The benefits of disability exceptions in copyright law extend beyond the immediate advantages for the disabled population. Emerging economies in Africa, such as Rwanda, can particularly benefit from the spillover effects of inclusive copyright policies. Rwanda, known for its ambitious economic growth plans, recognizes that a well-educated and skilled workforce is essential for achieving its development goals. By incorporating disability exceptions into its copyright law, ensured that its disabled citizens have access to quality education and training materials. This, in turn, has nurtured a more skilled and diverse workforce, driving economic growth and competitiveness.

AfCFTA's Provisions for Disability Exceptions

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), a landmark trade agreement, recognizes the importance of disability inclusion in its protocol. Article 11.6 of the AfCFTA Protocol on Intellectual Property emphasizes the need to "take into account the needs of persons with disabilities concerning access to protected subject matter." This provision reflects a broader recognition among African Union member states that inclusive copyright policies are crucial for economic development. Member states that are parties to the AfCFTA must recognize the significance of disability exceptions in copyright law and take steps to ensure their implementation. This not only fosters regional cooperation but also amplifies the impact of inclusive policies across multiple economies.

In a world where knowledge and information are increasingly valuable commodities, it is imperative that African economies prioritize inclusivity in their copyright laws. Disability exceptions not only empower individuals with disabilities but also contribute to economic growth and innovation. Nigeria's pioneering efforts in this regard serve as a commendable model, and Egypt, as the second-largest African economy, should follow suit. Implementing disability exceptions can also have far-reaching benefits for emerging economies like Rwanda, fostering a more skilled workforce and stimulating local content creation. The inclusion of disability provisions in the AfCFTA reflects a regional commitment to this cause, further emphasizing the importance of disability exceptions in copyright law. By recognizing and addressing this growing need, African economies can unlock the potential of their entire population, driving sustainable growth, and prosperity for all.