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Library associations testify on access to copyrighted works for the blind

Carrie Russell from the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy testified Monday at a hearing called by the U.S. Copyright Office (Copyright Office) and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on the topic of copyright exceptions for the blind or other persons with disabilities. The purpose of the hearing was to inform the U.S. delegation on relevant copyright and access issues to be discussed at next week’s meeting of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

As we discussed in a previous post, the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries jointly submitted comments to the U.S. Copyright Office on the topic of facilitating access to copyrighted works for the blind or persons with other disabilities.  The library associations believe that the blind should be afforded the same access to materials as sighted persons.

Present at the hearing were members of the blind and visually impaired communities, advocates from public interest organizations, companies that develop adaptive technologies, and representatives from the publishing and content industries. Russell testified that librarians are, for the most part, grateful for Section 121 of Copyright Act (also known as the “Chafee Amendment”), which allows them and other authorized bodies to make reproductions of copyrighted works for the blind or other persons with disabilities. She said that librarians don’t want Chafee to go away, despite some problems in its execution. Echoing the public statement by the library associations, Russell described ways that librarians aid in providing access to works for the blind. She said that some academic libraries partner with the student adaptive services centers on campuses in order to provide access to works for disabled students. Russell reported that she found less going on within the public library sphere. Public libraries seemed more constrained by budget issues, lacked the technical expertise, and were oftentimes confused about their rights to provide access under the law.

In response to the recent Kindle 2 text-to-speech ordeal, in which Random House and the Authors Guild strong-armed Amazon into disabling the built-in feature, Russell warned that contract law shouldn’t be allowed to expand the exclusive rights of copyright holders. Jamie Love from Knowledge Ecology International said that since the Kindle is now a mainstream technology, the idea that publishers and trade associations can “de-engineer accessibility” is shameful. George Kerscher from the DAISY Consortium said that turning off text-to-speech on the Kindle is equivalent to negating the fundamental human right to access information for disabled person.

Also of great interest was the relation of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to facilitating access for the disabled. Scott LaBarre from the National Federation of the Blind said, “it’s truly ironic when works are produced in digital format and the screen reading software doesn’t work because of DRM.” Speaking more generally, LaBarre pushed content publishers to think about disabled access from a universal design angle, and make the necessary commitments to make it happen.

The proposed international blind treaty was, to be expected, supported by most of the public interest and blind groups, and opposed by the publishing and content industries. Speaking on behalf of the library associations, Russell said that libraries would support an international treaty as long as it sustained an environment where fair use is protected, and did not set a precedent where exceptions solidified in a blind treaty would set a ceiling for the interpretation of other limitations & exceptions.

Kerscher articulated a “trusted intermediary” solution, which seemed to hold some water with the Copyright Office and USPTO. Under this framework, blind-rights organizations would work closely with publishers in the development process for a new NISO standard. With a more clear accessibility standard, publishers would be able to create fully functional, accessible copies “at birth” during the production process. Libraries would serve as the trusted intermediaries in providing access, and enable an interface to many higher education institutions that purchase accessible copies. Russell said that libraries are a natural player in this framework, since there are libraries in every community. However, she suggested that for such a process to succeed, libraries would require additional funding and staff training. Russell said that the approach would not work if it was seen as yet another unfunded mandate placed upon overburdened libraries.

Twitter posts of the hearing available here. Transcripts and audio downloads from the hearing will be available soon on the Copyright Office website.

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Jacob Roberts is the communications specialist for the ALA Washington Office.

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