Copyright Owners Fight Plan to Release E-Books for the Blind

By David Kravets
Wired News, December 11, 2009

A broad swath of American enterprise ranging from major software makers to motion picture and music companies are joining forces to oppose a new international treaty that would make books more accessible to the blind.

On Monday, dozens of nations will meet in Geneva to consider adopting the WIPO Treaty for Sharing Accessible Formats of Copyrighted Works for Persons Who are Blind or Have other Reading Disabilities. The proposal before a subcommittee of the roughly 180 World Intellectual Property Organization members would sanction the cross- border sharing of DRM-protected digitized books that tens of thousands of blind and visually disabled people read with devices and tools like the Pac Mate, Book Port and Victor Reader.

“This treaty would be the first one that is not done for the copyright owner, but for the user of the works – for the blind to make a copyrighted work accessible,” says Manon Ress, a policy analyst at Knowledge Ecology International, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights lobby that helped spearhead the proposal.

But that prospect doesn’t sit well with American business. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest lobby representing 3 million businesses, argues that the plan being proposed by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay, “raises a number of serious concerns,” chief among them the specter that the treaty would spawn a rash of internet book piracy.

The treaty also creates a bad precedent by loosening copyright restrictions, instead of tightening them as every previous copyright treaty has done, said Brad Huther, a chamber director. Huther concluded in a Dec. 2 letter to the U.S. Copyright office that the international community “should not engage in pursuing a copyright- exemption based paradigm.”

Echoing that concern, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry of America told the Copyright Office last month that such a treaty would “begin to dismantle the existing global treaty structure of copyright law, through the adoption of an international instrument at odds with existing, longstanding and well- settled norms.”

The proposal before the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights could free up thousands of book titles to millions of blind people in WIPO-member nations – without payment to the publisher.

Many WIPO nations, most in the industrialized world including England, the United States and Canada, have copyright exemptions that usually allow non-profit companies to market copyrighted works without permission. They scan and digitize books into the so-called universal Daisy format, which includes features like narration and digitized Braille.

The Daisy Corp. Consortium, a Swiss-based international agency, controls formatting worldwide and has some 100 companies under its direction across the globe. The largest catalog rests in the United States, in which three non-profits, including the Library of Congress, host some half million digital titles produced by federal grants and donations.

As it now stands, none of the nations may allow persons outside their borders to access these works, which are usually doled out for little or no charge. The treaty seeks to free up the cross-border sharing of the books for the blind.

“People who oppose copyright exemptions oppose exemptions on principle that there should be no exemptions of copyright law,” says George Kerscher, Daisy’s general secretary. “They should have sole right and discretion to do what they want with their intellectual property. To a great extent, the opposition to the treaty is based on that principle. ”

To receive any reading materials, the blind and disabled must prove their condition, he said. In the United States, Knowledge Ecology International estimates about 5 percent of published books have been transformed to the Daisy format.

Google is the only major U.S. corporation to side with the blind in the international tussle. In filings with the Copyright Office, the company called for American copyright holders to see past their doctrinal opposition to weakening copyright protections.

“We are concerned that some of the comments are simply stating opposition to a larger agenda of limitations and exceptions,” (.pdf) Google’s chief copyright officer, William Paltry, wrote this month. “We believe this is an unproductive approach to solving what is a discrete, long-standing problem that affects a group that needs and deserves the protections of the international community.”

Not surprisingly, U.S. book publishers are the harshest critics of the proposal. The Association of American Publishers, which represents about 300 publishers large and small, argue the treaty is not necessary. The publishers suggest the blind and disabled should pay for their materials — the only way the market for such products could flourish.

“Under the proposed draft treaty, where it appears that privileged copies could be made even where accessible versions were commercially available, copyright owners would have understandable doubts about the wisdom of investing in the production of accessible versions for the market,” the association’s vice president, Allan Adler, wrote the Copyright Office on Dec. 4.

“Under these circumstances, publishers not unreasonably hesitate and wonder whether they can expect such a market to flourish when potential customers would still have the option of relying upon a statutory exception to get an accessible version of a work without having to pay for it,” Adler added.

Dan Burke, a 52-year-old blind man from Montana and a self-described “book worm,” does not agree with the publishers.

Burke, a victim of a retinal disease that blinded him decades ago, often acquires books and poems at Bookshare, an online nonprofit offering about 60,000 titles in exchange for $50 in annual dues and other volunteer work. Burke says none of the rank-and-file commercially available e-readers, including the Kindle, are adequately equipped for the blind.

“You have to be able to see to use these, to turn the machine on and navigate menus,” says Burke.

Amazon, however, said this week that it would soon produce a blind- accessible Kindle, one with an audible menu and large font for the visually impaired.

But Amazon, the Kindle’s maker, gives book authors the option of disabling the read-aloud function, notes Burke, a board member for the National Federation of the Blind, which supports the treaty. The Authors Guild, an advocacy group for writers, argued earlier this year that reading a book aloud counts as an unauthorized public performance.

“Information is what we want. Information is the power to become economically viable members of society,” Burke said. “This is a world in which if you don’t have money you usually don’t have access.”