Blind People Won the Right to Break Ebook DRM. In 3 Years, They’ll Have to Do It Again

By DAMON BERES: For Complete Post, click here…

Advocates will once again be granted a DMCA exception to make accessible versions of texts. They argue that it’s far past time to make it permanent.

IT’S A CLICHÉ of digital life that “information wants to be free.” The internet was supposed to make the dream a reality, breaking down barriers and connecting anyone to any bit of data, anywhere. But 32 years after the invention of the World Wide Web, people with print disabilities—the inability to read printed text due to blindness or other impairments—are still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled.

Advocates for the blind are fighting an endless battle to access ebooks that sighted people take for granted, working against copyright law that gives significant protections to corporate powers and publishers who don’t cater to their needs. For the past year, they’ve once again undergone a lengthy petitioning process to earn a critical exemption to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act that provides legal cover for people to create accessible versions of ebooks.

Baked into Section 1201 of the DMCA is a triennial process through which the Library of Congress considers exceptions to rules that are intended to protect copyright owners. Since 2002, groups advocating for the blind have put together lengthy documents asking for exemptions that allow copy protections on ebooks to be circumvented for the sake of accessibility. Every three years, they must repeat the process, like Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill.

On Wednesday, the US Copyright Office released a report recommending the Librarian of Congress once again grant the three-year exemption; it will do so in a final rule that takes effect on Thursday. The victory is tainted somewhat by the struggle it represents. Although the exemption protects people who circumvent digital copyright protections for the sake of accessibility—by using third-party programs to lift text and save it in a different file format, for example—that it’s even necessary strikes many as a fundamental injustice.

“As the mainstream has embraced ebooks, accessibility has gotten lost,” says Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind. “It’s an afterthought.”

Publishers have no obligation to make electronic versions of their books accessible to the blind through features like text-to-speech (TTS), which reads aloud onscreen text and is available on whichever device you’re reading this article. More than a decade ago, publishers fought Amazon for enabling a TTS feature by default on its Kindle 2 ereader, arguing that it violated their copyright on audiobooks. Now, publishers enable or disable TTS on individual books themselves.

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