The blind, dyslexic and other visually impaired people have long suffered what many advocates have termed a “book famine,” having access to only 5% of all published books. This situation is even worse in developing and underdeveloped countries. But now another step has been taken in improving this situation thanks to the Internet Archive.
Last Thursday, the Archive announced that it would offer visually impaired users free web access to over a million books in the machine-readable DAISY format, which can be automatically converted into Braille, speech, or other accessible forms. The million books include not only public domain works that are unrestricted by copyrights, but also thousands of in-copyright works that can now be accessed by blind, dyslexic, and other visually impaired readers if they are registered as “qualified users” with the Library of Congress’ National Library Service.
These limits on who can access the books are set by the Copyright Act. If a book isn’t originally published in an accessible format, it needs to be converted into accessible formats such as Braille or text-to-speech to enable its use by the blind. The process of conversion to accessible formats involves copying books, thereby implicating copyrights. While U.S. copyright law contains an exception that allows such copying, only non-profit institutions that work to serve the blind can take advantage of this exception and then too only when the works have been made available exclusively for the benefit of the blind. Because the Internet Archive is a non-profit, it can make these accessible copies. But to ensure that the copies are available only to the blind, access to the digital format is restricted to users who are “qualified” or registered with the National Library Service (NLS).
More projects like Internet Archive’s are essential to solve the acute crisis the blind face around the world. As Archive founder (and PK board member) Brewster Kahle points out, publishers only make a small number of books available in digital format. And even these digital books are often in formats that the blind cannot access. Readers will recall our reporting of the DMCA triennial rulemaking proceeding in which the blind had requested an exemption to circumvent eBook DRM so that they could access eBooks. A decision on that request is still pending. Internationally, organizations championing the cause of the blind are attempting to get the World Intellectual Property Organization to adopt a treaty that would increase the number of works accessible by the blind, dyslexic, and persons with other visual impairments.
While these efforts, if successful, would greatly benefit the visually impaired, the advantage of the Internet Archive’s project is that it can be undertaken now, without the need to change law or seek permission from regulators. Even now, more books are being scanned in many languages at around 20 centers around the world to expand the collection. The Internet Archive is seeking donations of books and eBooks from individuals, libraries and online booksellers. If you would like to donate books to this worthy cause, please visit http://openlibrary.org/bookdrive.