What does access to information mean to you?: the ability to read your newspaper – physical or online – every day?; the ability to go to a book store and buy your favorite author’s book?; the ability to read professional publications to advance your career? Most of us rely on these sources and more to keep ourselves informed and participate in society. But for the blind and the visually impaired access to information is not easy. Works have to be converted to special formats to enable access. Because copyrights are implicated during the process, copyright law provides certain exceptions enabling the creation of accessible formats.
Are these laws sufficient to allow the blind to read anything they want to? Is the market responding to their needs? The Copyright Office is asking for public comments on these and other questions. The request for comments comes in light of an upcoming meeting at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva this May. WIPO is slated to consider a new treaty calling for limitations and exceptions to national copyright laws which would, among other things, enable the blind and the visually impaired to access information or enhance their current abilities to obtain access. We submitted our comments yesterday. In our comments we highlight how adaptive technology holds the promise to increase access for the blind despite limitations imposed by law and market practices. Adaptive technology consists of hardware or software products that convert characters that appear on a computer screen into accessible formats like Braille displays, digital speech, or enlarged text.
Before I talk about adaptive technologies, let me give some background. In the analog world books, magazine etc. have to be converted to formats such as talking books, large print books, or Braille. Converting material to these formats is expensive and involves delays. Because of this, very few publishers make their works available in accessible formats. Although copyright laws of many countries contains exceptions permitting others to make accessible copies, these exceptions are very narrow. In the U.S. the exception extends only to non-profits working for the blind. What is more, publishers cannot provide their digital files to these non-profits – a process which would reduce their cost of producing accessible copies. Also, not every format falls within the scope of the exception. The result: very little printed material is available to the blind in accessible formats. In fact, one representative for the blind explains, that world over, only 5% of printed material is available to the blind. The figure is not likely to be very much higher in the U.S. either(page 66).
I mentioned earlier that adaptive technology holds the promise to change this situation. Many technology companies design their products to work with adaptive technologies(pages 29-33). For example, Adobe’s eBooks are designed to work with adaptive technologies. Similarly a number of companies offer products that allow the blind to access the world wide web with the aid of adaptive technology. Use of these technologies eliminates the need to convert printed material to accessible formats thus enabling the blind to access information at the same time as sighted individuals. As more information moves to digital formats, adaptive technologies would enable the blind to access increasing amounts of information.
So that should significantly remove barriers to access and overcome the problems caused by narrow copyright exceptions. Right? Well, not quite.
Although adaptive technologies offer a great solution, publishers complain against its text-to-speech or read aloud features, claiming that these interfere with their audio rights. Under pressure from publishers, Adobe added a feature to eBooks that allowed the text-to-speech functionality to be turned off if a publisher so desired. More recently, Amazon did the same thing with its Kindle under pressure from publishers. In addition to text-to-speech, DRM used to control access to eBooks also prevents other features of adaptive technology such as Braille conversion and screen magnification from working.
The DMCA prevents the circumvention of technological schemes that control copyright rights even if the purpose of circumvention is to enable the blind to read ebooks. While the Copyright Office has acknowledged the blind’s right to access a wide array of works and granted an exemption permitting circumvention, the exemption has to be renewed once every three years. In our filing, we urge the Copyright Office to advocate for a permanent exemption in favor of enabling access.
We make one other suggestion. Representatives for the blind explain that the ability to import/export accessible copies across jurisdictions would significantly improve their ability to access information. However, the laws of many countries prevent importation/exportation considering such activity an infringement of copyrights. We urge the Copyright Office to advocate for harmonized international legal standards that would facilitate import/export.
The deadline for filing comments is April 28th. If you are a blind person or have other visual impairment, narrate your experiences to the Copyright Office by filing comments with them. The Office will also hold a public hearing on the issue on May 18th. You can attend that meeting or look forward to information about the meeting on this blog.