Disabled must be given equal digital rights


WIRED:Depriving visually impaired people of access to books is but one illustration of the need for copyright law to be rewritten, writes DANNY O'BRIEN

TWO DECADES ago, hardly anyone but a handful of intellectual property lawyers paid much attention to the letter of the copyright law. Now, like it or not, we’re all caught up in the fight over what copies we can make, how, and for what purpose.

Every act of creation or communication online seems to make some copy that we need to double check isn’t infringing. Can we copy our CD collection onto our iPods? Can you stop someone from forwarding the e-mail you sent them? Is someone ripping off your website? Your idea? Or are you copying their idea? Everywhere you look, it seems, copyright law looks in need of an overhaul.

Even the most uncontroversial corners of current copyright law seem to provoke argument and confusion. Take the tiny subsection of global copyright law I’ve been spending time with this week: the special rights it grants for those with disabilities. Many countries make special exception to the normal rules of copying for those who need special formats to access them. Irish and United States law, for instance, both allow designated bodies to convert books into braille or audiobooks for the blind.

Sadly, the law hasn’t kept up with the digital revolution. While the internet has granted the rest of us the opportunity to import and export books (or download e-books) globally, the rights of people with disabilities are still blocked at the border. The designated authorities in the United States can’t ship their braille books or audio files to Irish libraries, and vice versa, because no one knows what the rights are when you wander outside your own jurisdiction.

BookShare, a United States organisation with more than 40,000 volumes converted into digitally scanned formats for the blind, can experimentally export just 4,000 of those works. The rest are tied up in a copyright limbo. It gets worse. The truth is, as e-book readers like the Kindle become popular, disabled readers could do what everyone else does in this networked world – cut out the middle man.

They no longer need “designated authorities” to convert an e-book to an accessible format. The consumer version of an e-book itself has all the data a disabled person needs to output in any number of different styles.

With the right software and hardware, a reading disabled person’s own computer could convert standard commercial e-books into synthesised speech, braille, or display them in ultra-large fonts.

Except, of course, that would be illegal. For almost all the e-books out there, disabled users would have to break the law in order to re-format the text with their own readers.

That’s because most e-books are locked down with digital rights management (DRM) code, which severely restricts what you can and cannot do with the text.

And, of course, Irish law, written back in the digitally prehistoric days of 2000, still requires disabled users to depend on a “designated authority” to do their legal copying for them. Disabled users making copies for themselves would still be breaking the law.

This is crazy. Companies like Sony and Amazon have done deals to create digital versions of hundreds of thousands of books. All of them are just one, simple – yet currently criminal – step away from being readable by blind computer users.

In the United States, where some exceptions to the laws regarding breaking copy protection are permitted on a temporary basis, disabled users have been granted a special dispensation to break the digital locks on these books. That’s a little better than the situation in Ireland.

But frankly, that exception is not much use since, while it allows blind users to crack the protection, it doesn’t allow them to tell anyone else how they did it or distribute tools to undo the DRM. Consequently, each disabled person has to invent their own way of breaking into their own e-books.

What can be done? Disabled users could gain the powers to make lawful copies currently only permitted to “designated bodies” under Irish law. But that doesn’t fix the problem of importing and exporting accessible texts.

A better global solution has recently been proposed by Brazil and the World Blind Union: an international treaty for the reading disabled, negotiated at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). This would not only make it easier to import and export works between countries with similar exceptions on their statute books, but it would also encourage other countries to grant the same freedoms. The treaty would grant exceptions to unlock DRM and also allow limited commercial operations to re-package and market books explicitly for the disabled (the current Irish law only allows non-profit groups this power).

A world treaty would be a great step forward for the reading disabled. It would also be the first IP treaty that has taken into account the opportunities of the new digital era. A world law that grants greater access to those who most need it seems an excellent 21st century step. It will be intriguing to see if Obama’s new administration and the European Union join Brazil in supporting this bold new step.