One of the biggest issues in modern societies is perhaps a growing sense of apathy towards fellow human beings. Intellectual property as a field has not been untouched by this issue. The Marrakesh treaty for instance since it was first put forward, has garnered only 70 signatories till date out of the 190+ member states that form part of the WIPO. This post however does not intend to deal with or question the aforementioned issues themselves but instead seeks to highlight the efforts of organizations such as Cane Foundation in seeking accessibility of IP tools and systems and also laud the efforts of the National Informatics Centre (NIC) and Indian Intellectual Property office and its officers such as Dr. Suman Shrey Singh, Deputy Controller of Patents and Designs at the Delhi Patent Office who have taken steps to set the wheel in motion for bringing about changes that have long since been ignored or simply brushed aside.
Attributions of words such as specially abled, differently abled and divyangjan do not make much of a difference in the life of persons with disabilities (hereinafter referred to as PWDs). The need of the hour is to provide facilities, infrastructure and accessibility for full and equal participation of persons with disabilities. The facilities, infrastructure and accessibility options range from universal design to reasonable accommodations.
In 2018, Dr. Kalyan Kankanala filed petitions with the Registrar of Copyrights and the Office of the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks (hereinafter referred to as the CGPDTM or the IPO [Intellectual Property Office] as the context may require). While the petition filed with the registrar of Copyrights sought to make the Copyright Office’s services, website, online systems, and documents accessible to persons with disabilities, specifically to persons with blindness, the petition filed before the CGPDTM sought to make the IPO’s services, website, online systems, and documents accessible to persons with blindness. A prayer was also made before both the offices for the provision of alternative facilities to file and prosecute copyright, patent, trademark and design applications, and also access documents, orders, and facilities until everything is made accessible for persons with disabilities on the website or e-filing platforms.
As is the case with any form of IP, the procedures are timeline driven and any delay in abiding by the statutory and other time limits may result in abandonment of applications. It therefore becomes all the more important to read and review the Office’s documents online along with those received by email or post on time and take appropriate action. Although the e-filing facility was introduced by the patent office as early as in 2012 and by the Copyright Office as early as in 2014, the systems were not equally and fully accessible to patent and trademark attorneys with blindness and other disabilities, and no alternative facilities were made available. Even after the enactment of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 which imposes an obligation on government offices to ensure that persons with disabilities are able to exercise their rights fully, equally and without discrimination, the offices did not have any policies or systems to ensure the same. Though the Act requires that appropriate steps be taken to put in place suitable support measures for persons with disabilities and to ensure accessibility of all public documents, records, services, etc., the offices had not implemented these into their functioning as well as the online systems or websites.
After exhausting alternative options, Dr. Kalyan was forced to approach the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD) to resolve the issue. Mr. Rakesh Krishnan, Ms. Ashwini Arun and Mr. Arjun Kansal, volunteers of the Cane Foundation, played key roles in the preparation of the complaint and interactions with the IPO and NIC thereafter.
Action by IPO and NIC
The IPO and NIC acted as soon as they received the complaint from CCPD and reached out to Dr. Kalyan in order to discuss and understand the challenges at hand. Though the system is some distance away from being fully accessible, some facilities have now been made access friendly for persons using screen readers. Measures such as voice captcha, tagging of fields and display of search results to suit screen readers were taken to facilitate access. We would like to commend and thank Dr. Suman Shrey Singh, Dy. Controller of Patents and Designs, Delhi Patent Office and the NIC team, who played important roles in bringing the IPO’s website as well as some systems and other auxillary services offered by the IPO to their current, relatively more accessible form. In the petitions a specific request had been made to appoint a disability officer at the IPO who would work as a nodal point for helping PWDs and ensuring that such persons are able to use the services of the IPO effectively as well as air grievances in respect of accessibility if any. In a much appreciated move the IPO has appointed Dr. Suman Shrey Singh as the defacto disability officer on a temporary basis.
The Road Ahead
So far, the IPO has taken some important positive steps, and if these steps continue, full and equal access may be a possibility sooner than later. As of now, there are some issues that are yet to be tackled. One of the biggest hurdles that made the IPO’s databases inaccessible was the captcha code requirement. While it can still prove to be a herculean task for people with proper sight to enter the captcha and log in at the very first attempt, the image based captcha made it nearly impossible for a person with blindness to access and use the services of the IPO fully and equally. The introduction of a voice captcha in addition to an image captcha has certainly bridged the accessibility issue to some extent. While some documents uploaded are access friendly, a large portion of them cannot be accessed by persons with blindness. Even state of the art software often fails to read these documents, this however can be easily remedied if appropriate OCR tools are employed by the IPO while uploading the documents online. The IPO should have no problem in accessing and employing such tools or software.
It is quite understandable that the e-filing portal of Patents, Designs, Trade Marks and GI are vast software applications and have been under continuous development for several years and that these are still evolving, it is therefore only obvious that some additional time must be provided to the IPO for bringing in a robust system that is not only secure but also access friendly. Nonetheless, while this is in progress, the IPO must try to make alternative means for filing and communication available to PWDs. A simple option of allowing persons with blindness to file applications through e-mail or by allowing for submitting responses to office actions over e-mail could go a long way in ensuring that patent and trademark agents and attorneys with blindness can fully, equally and independently perform their activities.
There are miles and miles to go for full accessibility, but with the proactive efforts of the IPO and NIC, it may be possible to cover these miles faster than estimated. Further, the range of improvements in technology is bound to enhance the speed at which accessibility can be achieved. Though the complaint against the Registrar of Copyrights filed before the CCPD is yet to be addressed, the Copyright Office will hopefully learn some lessons from the IPO’s positive measures.