Disabling the Disabled – copyright laws cause ‘Book Famine’ among the Blind and Visually Impaired

285 million people around the world are visually impaired. 39 million of them are blind. About 87% of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries, including Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific region. That’s according to the latest global estimates of visual impairment released by the World Health Organization.

Against this backdrop the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is considering a proposed treaty that would make copyrighted works more accessible to the blind and persons with visual and other disabilities. The treaty would establish limitations and exceptions to current copyright law for the non-commercial production and distribution of books for the benefit of the blind, people with dyslexia and learning or processing difficulties, seniors losing their sight, people with spinal cord injuries, and people recovering from strokes, and other physically challenged persons. It would also permit the sharing of electronic and Braille copies of books across national borders

Currently, it is estimated that less than 5% of books published are available for the visually impaired and this number is estimated at less than 1% in the developing world.

Copyright law, including the US Copyright Act Section 121 ‘Chafee Amendment’ and the UK Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act of 2002 does not permit the distribution of Braille books across national borders, except on a one-for-one or indirect basis in special circumstances. In order to make Braille versions of copyrighted books available to readers across national borders, organizations dedicated to supporting the blind and visually impaired are often forced to transcribe the same books repeatedly to avoid copyright infringement.

Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), an NGO based in Washington, DC and Geneva, which is dedicated to helping vulnerable and marginalized groups find knowledge-based solutions to economic and social problems, cites copyright restrictions as one of the biggest obstacles to the blind and print disabled gaining access to books.

“Many publishers do not respond timely or at all to licensing requests. Negotiations may introduce complex and sometimes inconsistent obligations on libraries that serve persons who are blind or have other disabilities. And, for older works, it is often difficult to identify and locate right-owners. All of these problems are multiplied when a request involves the export of works across national borders,” says KEI. The cost of converting reading material into more accessible formats is another factor that hampers efforts by support groups and advocacy organizations to make books more accessible to the blind and print disbled.

kindle ereader-07To date, most ereaders have features that help the visually impaired enjoy e-books. They include text vocalization functions or features that increase the font size, depending on the device.

However, in the US and Europe publishers have been pushing back against attempts by distributors of electronic readers to enable synthetic text-to-speech capabilities on the devices.

Microsoft and Adobe, who were the first to incorporate text-to-speech (TTS) in their e-book reading devices, has been receiving complaints over the years from publishers worried about infringement of their authors’ audio book rights. They are also concerned about enabling book-content piracy. As a result, a feature was added to the devices, which allows a publisher to disable the text-to-speech function for any of its e-books at the time of publication.

In February 2009, Amazon began offering the Kindle 2 with text-to-speech capability.  The US-based Authors Guild and trade book publishers promptly objected, claiming that it posed a threat to their audio book sales. They also argued that the provision of text-to-speech required a separate release of authors’ rights. Amazon yielded and began turning off text-to-speech unless authors and publishers gave them permission to keep it on.

The Reading Rights Coalition, a grouping of over 30 organizations based in the US, responded by organizing a series of protests outside the headquarters of the Authors Guild in New York City and at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.  Several high profile authors joined the protest. The Coalition succeeded in getting more than 7,500 supporters to sign a petition requesting that text-to-speech be allowed on Kindle books. They also wrote to several major publishers challenging their opposition to text-to-speech.

audacity-of-hopeEven the White House was drawn into the dispute when they got wind of the controversy. White House Special Assistant for Disability Policy, Kareem Dale convened a meeting of White House representatives and members of the Coalition and the Authors Guild, as well as the Association of American Publishers.

To date the Coalition is no closer to getting its wish. Ironically, two years after the organization held its tête-a-tete with the White House’s Kareem Dale, the Kindle edition of Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of HopeThoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream is on sale at Amazon with text-to-speech disabled – as recently as June 23, 2011. Click on the text-to-speech icon and a note from Amazon explains, “The publisher has requested not to enable text-to-speech for this title.” Up until June 20, 2011 Obama’s other two books, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama’s Plan to Renew America’s Promise also had text-to-speech disabled.

Vice President Joe Biden’s book Promises to Keepon Life and Politics also has text-to-speech disbled on the Kindle editionJohn McCain’s publisher has also disabled text-to-speech in the Kindle edition of his book Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember.

The fact that two of the country’s highest ranking government officials and a former Presidential candidate have allowed text-to-speech to be disabled on their ebooks, seems a mite odd considering that it runs contrary to the spirit of US Federal laws that mandate accessibility for people with disabilities, including the Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act which “requires Federal electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.” In defining an “accessible information technology system,” the Act cites as an example “a system that provides output only in visual format” which “may not be accessible to people with visual impairments.”

What’s more, Article 21 of the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities urges governments to “take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise their right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through sign languages, Braille, augmentative and alternative communication, and all other accessible means, modes and formats of communication of their choice.”

Many bestselling authors have also allowed text-to-speech to be disabled on the Kindle editions of their books.

If the blind and visually impaired around the world are to prevail in their struggle for equal access to books and other reading material, then the primary battleground must be the developed world.

The publishing conglomerates clearly wield enormous power. Little wonder the European and United States governments have been so reluctant to give their full backing to the proposed treaty currently before WIPO, which seeks to level the playing field for the blind and other visual and physically challenged people. The treaty is currently sponsored by a small group of Latin American countries, including Brazil, Ecuador, and Paraguay.

However, according to the EU Reporter, calls for EU support for the proposed treaty may fall on deaf ears. ”The recently released draft text of the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement  (ACTA), which is being negotiated behind closed doors by the EU and USA among others, aims to strengthen international rules on copyright infringement and seeks to criminalise non-commercial copyright infringement.”

Initially, the Obama administration opposed a treaty to make copyrighted works more accessible to the blind and print disabled, as did the Bush administration. In December 2009 they softened their stance and announced they were willing to consider it as one of the options to address problems faced by the visually impaired and disabled in freely accessing reading material. But, as James Love notes in a recent Huffington post article, the Obama administration has been hamstrung by the departure of three key treaty supporters – Susan Crawford and Andrew McLaughlin in the White House and Arti Rai, former administrator for external affairs at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

On the bright side, Internet Archive, one of the world’s leading internet libraries, currently offers free web access to over a million books in the machine-readable DAISY format, which can be automatically converted into a variety of accessible formats, including Braille and text-to-speech. The hardcopies are scanned and then digitized into the DAISY format. The files are downloaded to devices that translate the text and read the books aloud.

Both public domain and in-copyright works will be made available, including 19th century fiction classics, contemporary novels, technical guides and research materials. They can be accessed by blind, dyslexic, and other print disabled readers who have to be registered as “qualified users” with the Library of Congress’ National Library Service. For non-Americans, this is the catch. Eligible users of the Library of Congress’ National Library must be residents of the United States, and US territories, and the District of Columbia, or American citizens domiciled abroad.


One response to “Disabling the Disabled – copyright laws cause ‘Book Famine’ among the Blind and Visually Impaired

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