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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Blind People Have Won the Right to Break Ebook DRM—for Now

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.

Even as TTS has become more common, there's no guarantee that a blind person will be able to enjoy a given novel from Amazon's Kindle storefront, or a textbook or manual. That's why the exemption is so important—and why advocates do the work over and over again to secure it from the Library of Congress. It's a time-consuming and expensive process that many would rather do away with.

"To go every three years is burdensome," says Mark Richert, executive director at the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. "We are not resourced the way rights owners are. There is a disparity in privilege and capacity. On that sort of equitable note alone, the exemptions should be permanent."

Some advocates have pushed for DMCA reform that would weaken or negate Section 1201's copyright protections, therefore removing the need for a triennial application process. Lawmakers held a number of hearings reevaluating the DMCA last year; they've amounted to more debate about the best path forward, but there have been no material outcomes so far.

In the meantime, the situation morphed into a genuine crisis as the Covid-19 pandemic forced a worldwide exodus to digital space. Eric and Rebecca Bridges, both of whom are blind and work as advocates for people with disabilities, decided to homeschool their 6-year-old son last year after learning their school district wouldn't provide accessible materials.

"The world changed," says Eric, who works as the executive director of the American Council of the Blind. "He’s got two blind parents who can’t really accurately review his progress. How were we going to do this?"

"The apps that our district was using were not accessible to us as blind parents," says Rebecca, a manager at the accessibility software company TPG Interactive. "We felt like he would really lose out … So, we took that leap."

Although their son is sighted, the Bridges needed accessible textbooks and worksheets to instruct him and check his work. They purchased learning materials from three homeschooling companies, but none of them were accessible. Worksheets that appeared totally text-based actually weren't, for example. Instead, the files the Bridges received were just pictures of text.

It's an important distinction. Think of it this way: You can highlight any letter or word in this article, copy and paste it, whatever. But take a screenshot of the same text and suddenly you're left with a static image that you can't interact with. It's the difference between a DOC file and a JPEG. Without specific software, a computer doesn't "see" words in an image.

Rebecca resorted to a program called JAWS, which uses optical character recognition to translate text in an image, to read her son's worksheets. This is where the Section 1201 exemption comes in: To create an accessible version of a copyrighted work sometimes means altering and reproducing that work in a different format using a tool like JAWS. Without the exemption, it would technically be illegal to break copyright protection for this purpose.

So, Rebecca handled the worksheets. But then there were the books. Rebecca asked the homeschooling companies to provide electronic copies of the hard-copy books she purchased for her son, so that she could access the text and instruct him. When she got the files, she had to contend with a fresh slate of problems.

"Not a single one was a completely accessible document, and I received many," Rebecca says. The companies sent locked files she couldn't access and manipulate. Or they sent poorly formatted PDFs that confused her screen-reader software.

Even ebooks that are formatted correctly for TTS can have other issues. Math and science are the worst. Textbooks may be formatted for 100 percent accurate text-to-speech, only to falter when it comes to formulas, equations, charts, and tables. Those are typically rendered as images in an ebook, which would require publishers to take an additional step to record "alt text" for each individual figure—audio that would describe the image once encountered by a screen reader.

This rarely happens. A screen reader instead stumbles over these static images, sometimes reciting filename gibberish, leaving a blind reader with no possible way to discern meaning. That's assuming, again, that an accessible version of the textbook exists to begin with. If one does exist, it may only be available on certain platforms.


The inconsistencies can be maddening. Take Calculus: Early Transcendentals, a popular textbook from the publisher Cengage Learning. The "eTextbook" available on Amazon is actually just a straightforward scan of the book, with absolutely no text to speech functionality. Bookshare, an accessible online library, offers a version of the book, but even that copy is not fully accessible, because it doesn't contain alt text descriptions of those static images.

Brad Turner, VP and GM of global education and literacy at Benetech, the nonprofit behind Bookshare, says that while his company will sometimes inject accessible features into ebooks without the cooperation of a publisher, they won't write their own descriptions for images.

"Our agreement with publishers is, give us your content, and we promise not to change it at all. We’re only going to make it accessible," Turner says. "For many of the images, graphics, charts, graphs, formulas, equations, we’re not qualified like the author or the publisher."

Emily Featherston, director of corporate communications at Cengage, says the company is committed to providing accessible versions of its ebooks, and that it has "accessibility guidelines and an in-house team of digital accessibility and learning design specialists" to support its product and tech teams. Readers who purchase and access text through Cengage's own platform will have access to TTS and alt text, but those features aren't guaranteed from the third parties people may be more accustomed to buying from.

"While this work helps demonstrate our commitment to providing accessible solutions, we also recognize that accessibility is a journey, not a destination, and there is always room to improve," Featherston says.

That journey has been very long. Technological interventions have been available for years—some people use tools like the Kindle Converter or Codex to cleave through digital rights management, transforming proprietary ebooks into accessible formats—but the core problem is actually very simple. Publishers could provide fully accessible, digital versions of their books. They don't have to, and often they don't.

So advocates in the United States are stuck filing for an exemption to a 23-year-old law, signed a year before the founding of Napster and well ahead of the smartphone era, when a top copyright concern was kids ripping music from CDs. The recommendation this month to extend the copyright exemption for accessible ebooks is good news, but the entire process will repeat in three years.

By then, a permanent fix may be closer. In 2019, the European Accessibility Act became law in the EU. It will be enforced in June 2025, requiring all ebooks published in the EU after that point to be fully accessible. Some hope it could set a precedent here.

"We passed a seatbelt law. We passed an unleaded gas law. Why can’t we pass an accessible book law?" Turner says.

Meanwhile, the Bridges are looking to the future—with some trepidation.

"Math is going to be nasty," Rebecca says. "There’s no doubt in my mind."

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