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A Baby Step Taken, Authors Guild and AAP Agree that the Print-Disabled Have a Right to Read

Last week, I attended a training workshop for representatives of developing nations on copyright and the reading impaired. The weeklong workshop, sponsored by the U.S. Copyright Office and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), included discussions related to the proposed WIPO treaty for a copyright exception for the reading impaired, presentations from Copyright Office staff on the Chafee amendment —  the U.S. copyright exception for the blind and visually impaired persons, and presentations from non-profit and federally funded organizations that serve the reading impaired including Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic, Bookshare, and the Library of Congress’ National Library Service.

I particularly enjoyed hearing from Dan Goldstein, attorney for the National Federation of the Blind, who provided an update on the ongoing Kindle 2 controversy.

You may recall this reading rights controversy that began in February 2009, when the Authors Guild asked Amazon to disable the text-to-speech function of its Kindle 2, arguing that its authors had not given permission to Amazon to use computer synthesized speech on its e-book reader.  The Authors Guild feared that Kindle’s computer generated synthesized speech function would compete with its audio book market, a ridiculous argument suggesting that sighted individuals would rather listen to computerized speech than vastly superior audio books read by professional actors.  The Authors Guild said that it would sue Amazon for breach of contract since Amazon had not negotiated private performance (a.k.a. reading aloud) rights with Authors Guild.  (The beauty of licenses for rights holders is that you can charge for rights not guaranteed under the copyright law. While public performance is an exclusive right of copyright, private performance is not. Nonetheless, you can make people pay extra for it, for you agree to the contract).

Amazon acquiesced and the text to speech function was disabled.  In response, 30 national organizations that represent the print disabled formed the Reading Rights Coalition to advocate for equal reading rights.  The text-to-speech function made thousands of Amazon e-book available to the reading impaired, a great step forward in using technology and the market to provide the reading impaired “the same book, at the same time, at the same price” as sighted people.

After a year of negotiating that included a secret meeting called by the White House’s Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President for Disability, the Authors Guild, AAP, and the Reading Rights Coalition came to an agreement that the reading impaired should have equal access to reading. The statement issued March 9, reads in part:

“The Reading Rights Coalition, the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers believe that the contents of books should be as accessible to individuals with print disabilities as they are to everyone else.  To that end, these groups agree to work together and through the communities they represent to ensure that when the marketplace offers alternative formats to print books, such as audio and electronic books, print-disabled consumers can access the contents of these alternative formats to the same extent as all other consumers.”

Big deal, right?  Well, yes a giant step forward concerning the reading famine that the print disabled tackle every day. Only 5 percent of works published in the United States are available in accessible formats for the print disabled.  Obtaining an accessible copy of a book is possible, but ordinarily occurs after the print edition has been published.  Costs for making accessible copies in Braille are high — on average $16,000 for a typical trade book publication.  The wait time can be several months — most Braille transcribers work for federally funded and volunteer organizations that serve the print disabled.  Braille transcription, still considered the gold standard for the reading impaired in that it enables reading literacy, takes a long time. Other format options are available – talking books,  large print for those with minor vision problems, the use of accessible equipment to enhance the appearance of text, or computer scanning of text that can be read aloud with a variety of computer software.  All of these options, however, require a wait time and usually an intermediary for assistance. The Kindle 2 offered immediacy, independence, and the opportunity for the reading impaired to mainstream with the sighted both buying the same product instead of the “dumbed down” version (cassette tapes?) typically considered “good enough” for the blind.

One would figure that with today’s technological advancements that this book famine problem could be solved. Interoperable computer standards exist that greatly improve the reading experience for the visually impaired, but publishers have been unwilling to create accessible copies at the point of publication because, they argue, such a venture would be risky and not profitable considering the small market for accessible books. Small? The number of Americans who have print disabilities is estimated at 30 million — a number that will increase over time with as Americans get older and begin to have vision problems.  Other print impaired individuals include millions with dyslexia, learning disabilities or mobility impairments that make it impossible to turn pages or hold a book as well as injured veterans.

The publishers have changed their tune saying now that there is a market for accessible books.  The joint statement continues, “The growth in the number of books offered in electronic and audio formats has created tremendous opportunities for the millions of Americans who are blind or have other print disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to read printed books in the same way that other Americans typically do.  This large community constitutes a previously-untapped market that is hungry for the educational, inspirational, and recreational opportunities that books can provide, and now offers a significant commercial opportunity to the publishing industry.”

Now we must wait and see if authors and publishers will take the action necessary to fulfill this promise.  In the meantime, it would be a shame if librarians with a strong commitment to reading did not take the opportunity to contact their Senators or Congressional representatives — now – encouraging the government to monitor these developments. Say that reading for the blind “is overdue.”

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Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Washington Office. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books, and other public policy issues. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in media arts from the University of Arizona.

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