We thank the folks at Abledbody for including an article about the letter writing campaign in their News Watch segment. This blog appears to be an excellent resource for advocacy and information about assistive technology and disability rights activities. I have just subscribed to their RSS feed in Newsgator, and recommend all of you consider doing likewise in your favorite RSS aggregator or reader.
We have discovered that it is no longer possible to write to the President by simply sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Doing so results in an automatic reply that gives information on the accepted ways to make contact. All information needed to send comments to President Obama is available on the White House’s contact page.
In our letter writing campaign on the international copyright exemption treaty, please submit an electronic message of 5,000 characters or less, FAX the White House or send your letter via snail mail if you are able. We may also want to consider calling the White House, but I feel getting started in writing may be best at this time. I hope all of you are writing and sending letters to President Obama on this important issue. Please feel free to stay in touch and let us know how we may be of assistance.
Letter Writing Campaign Asks President Obama to Fully Support International Copyright Exemption Treaty for the Blind and Print Reading Disabled
I have written the letter shown below to President Obama. Thanks to Alena Roberts, Kelly Ford and Milica Trpevska for their assistance in the editing of this letter through three revisions. I am asking all my American readers to send a similar letter to email@example.com to show support for an international treaty that would expand the copyright exemptions we enjoy in the United States to the blind and other people with print reading disabilities in the rest of the world. If you are not an American citizen, please write a similar supportive letter to your nation’s prime minister or other appropriate political leaders.
May 30, 2009
Dear Mr. President:
As a blind American, I am writing to ask you for your help in order to expand our limited access to printed books. Specifically, I would like you to direct your representatives on the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights in the World Intellectual Property Organization to fully support the treaty on copyright exceptions for visually impaired persons.
In the United States, Blind Americans currently enjoy the highest level of accessibility to books in the entire world! The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped provides tens of thousands of books as audio recordings. Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic provides thousands more books in recorded form primarily to K-12 and college students with reading disabilities. Finally, a project called Bookshare delivers access to more than 50,000 copyrighted books in an electronic format we can read with our Braille displays and on our talking computers in a manner that is most similar to the way sighted people are automatically able to read. All of this is possible by way of an exemption we enjoy in our copyright laws called 17 USC Section 121 that allows certain authorized organizations to make books accessible to us without the constant need to obtain written permission from publishers.
In contrast with the specialized nonprofit organizations (authorized entities in copyright law) that work with us to adapt reading material, the marketplace has continued to fail the blind despite ongoing advocacy. I am willing to purchase books in the same way as our sighted peers, so long as I am able to read them in an accessible format. Almost without exception, however, authors and publishers have been unwilling to work with the blind on a voluntary basis and have vigorously resisted all the legislative gains we have made to force their compliance.
Many electronic books are now sold for reading only on Amazon’s Kindle book reader. The Kindle is inaccessible to the blind, Amazon has made no plans to rectify the issue and no software exists to convert the books to an accessible format. Even the most recent revision of the reader, the Kindle II, contains voice output, but remains completely unusable by a blind person. Further, the Author’s Guild is working against people with disabilities by advocating publishers disable voice output on Kindle books and making statements about audio books that could hamper the expansion of accessibility. One major publisher, Random House, is selling their Kindle electronic books with the text-to-speech feature disabled. Even if the Kindle were to become accessible to the blind, many books sold in that format would remain unreadable by blind customers. Other books are sold in equally inaccessible formats that employ security features specifically designed to disable our specialized screen reading software. As long as the marketplace continues to ignore our need for equal access, I am asking you to intervene in ways that support our efforts to adapt information so that it is readable by those of us with print disabilities.
American accessibility projects like NLS, RFB&D and Bookshare represent an attempt by our own community to essentially make our own accessibility. Hundreds of Bookshare volunteers acquire, scan and convert books into a specialized accessible format known as DAISY. NLS readers and RFB&D volunteers verbally read books for distribution as digital audio recordings in another subset of the specialized DAISY standard. In all three cases, the blind and others with reading disabilities must prove eligibility in order to receive access to copyrighted books through these authorized organizations. This level of access to books really makes a positive difference for blind Americans who wish to learn, work and participate in all aspects of our society on terms of equality with the sighted.
Alena Roberts knows firsthand what a difference accessible books can make in the life of a blind person. A graduate of the University of Oregon, she struggled with the lack of accessible textbooks. “In college, if my required books were not available at RFB&D, my university had to do the recordings, which meant in a lot of cases that I only got to read the pages that my professor required,” Roberts says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to book reviews on the radio just to find that they’re not available in an accessible format.”
Recent advancements in the accessibility of books have opened the world for Alena and tens of thousands of blind Americans. “For me personally, having access to books means that I get to read what I want to read more often,” says Roberts.
Despite this level of accessibility, most published books continue to be outside our reach. Many are still found only in print while the vast majority of electronic books are delivered in formats that are incompatible with our screen reading software. Internationally, the World Blind Union says that people with print reading disabilities are granted access to less than five percent of all reading material available to the sighted. I believe that, were your closest friends and relatives locked out of 95 percent of the world’s books, you and Michelle would be insisting on change now. I am certain you are sensitive to the need for equal access for blind people everywhere.
In comparison to the American experience of people like myself and Alena Roberts, Milica Trpevska, a journalism student from Macedonia attending American University at Bulgaria, lives in the dark ages with respect to the unavailability of accessible books. Many of the textbooks required in her classes are made accessible in the United States, but copyright laws prohibit her from acquiring and reading them simply due to her location. An accessible copy of a book that is available to blind Americans for the cost and time of a download over the Internet requires hundreds of hours of work by herself and one or more sighted people in order for Milica to be able to access the same content her sighted peers can read without a thought. In addition, Milica has scanned hundreds of books over the years that she is unable to contribute to accessibility efforts like Bookshare due to the same restrictions currently imposed by international copyright law. Your full support of an international copyright exemption for people with print reading disabilities would open many doors for deserving people like Milica while further increasing the amount of printed material accessible to blind Americans.
It is time for positive change in the availability of reading material for the blind and others with print disabilities. I am asking you to help make the resources we already enjoy here in the United States available to the rest of the world. Doing this would serve to increase accessibility not only for people with print disabilities outside our nation, but it would also foster full international participation in our efforts to increase our access to the world of reading. Duplication of efforts would be eliminated and organizations in other countries would finally be able to deliver to us new books not yet made accessible here in America.
As a blind person who relies on the ability to read the same material enjoyed by my sighted peers in order to learn and to work as a productive member of society, I am asking for nothing less than equality of opportunity. If a copyright exemption is good enough for us here in the United States, then it is good enough for the rest of the world. Please work to expand the letter and spirit of 17 USC Section 121 to the rest of the world through the WIPO treaty by directing America’s delegates to avoid delay by prioritizing the needs of people with disabilities, actively demonstrating this stance to authors, publishers and the rest of the world and approving the treaty every time it comes up for a vote.
Balanced Agenda on Internationalization of Copyright Exemptions for People with Print Reading Disabilities
At the 18th session of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) of the World Intellectual Property Organization recently held in Geneva, a treaty was proposed by the World Blind Union to grant a copyright exemption for the production and distribution of books in a specialized format accessible by people with print reading disabilities. The result of such a treaty could be the international availability of accessible books from organizations such as Bookshare, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Disabled and Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic.
Predictably, organizations representing authors and publishers are concerned about any copyright changes that might expand the piracy of their work. These concerns are currently being expressed by SCCR delegates as opposition to the copyright exemption treaty. Blind people and others with print reading disabilities need and deserve equal access to books, while authors and publishers have the right to earn an income in compensation for their efforts. According to blogger James Love, who updated us via Twitter as the meeting progressed, “Group B has offered amendments to a proposed conclusion for the WIPO SCCR 18 meeting. The amendments are designed to eliminate any agreement to discuss a treaty for blind and reading disabled persons at the next meeting of the SCCR. The United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, the Holly See (the Vatican), the members of the European Union and other high income countries have joined in this statement.”
I think all of us in the connected, online blind community can agree that print reading material and other forms of information should be usable by the blind and other people with disabilities that curtail their ability to read print. Further, I also think we can agree that the marketplace (companies and organizations representing authors and the publishing industry) has largely ignored us and has taken unfortunate steps to curtail our right to equal access. This overall ignorance on the part of the marketplace has generated the need for copyright exemptions that enable us to make our own accessibility without the need to seek written permission from publishers to reproduce books in accessible formats.
We achieved a victory in the conclusion of the 18th SCCR session. The copyright exemption proposal will be discussed again at the 19th session of the SCCR. We have an opportunity to advocate for our right to equal access in a way that expresses a sensitivity to the needs of all stakeholders, including the very authors and publishers who regularly ignore us. In our advocacy, I propose the following overall agenda for our activities:
- Accept publishers’ desire for reasonable anti-piracy measures that do not curtail our access, including: definition of what constitutes an “authorized organization” for the distribution of accessible books, description of who is eligible to receive accessible materials under the exemption, standardization of the specialized formats that will be used to deliver accessible books and specifications for any digital rights management (DRM), usage tracking and watermarking for the purpose of preventing unauthorized duplication of accessible materials.
- When issues of digital rights management arise, we should prefer the Bookshare scheme over those employed by organizations like NLS and RFBD.
- Except in cases where DRM technology makes existing electronic books inaccessible to us, let’s try to keep the issues of equal access and DRM as separate as possible in the communications that make up our advocacy efforts.
- American citizens who are blind or have other print reading disabilities, and those without disabilities who care about us, should write letters to President Obama asking him to direct his delegation at SCCR to fully support the treaty on copyright exceptions for visually impaired persons.
- Similarly, citizens of other Group B nations should write letters to their prime ministers and other appropriate political leaders asking that they direct their SCCR delegations to fully support the treaty on copyright exceptions for visually impaired persons.
- It may be worth considering the creation of an online petition as a means of simply demonstrating the high levels at which most technology experts and users will support the proposed treaty.
- Finally, we all must work tirelessly over the next couple of months to promote our cause and spread the word of our efforts as far and wide as possible as the 19th meeting of the SCCR nears.
I think it is absolutely critical that we advocate strenuously for our right to equal access to books while expressing a willingness to make reasonable compromises with those stakeholders who have significant financial investments to protect. We may endure a little pain along the way, but if we are willing to consistently advocate for ourselves and stay in the game for the long haul, I’m quite confident we will come out ahead.