In late 2012, a 14-year-old high school student stood in front of a camera and began to read. Chris Nusbaum’s voice was calm and steady. And so were his hands, which ran smoothly over lines of braille as he made a personal appeal to Amazon—maker of the most widely-used e-reader in the world.
My class has just been assigned a project for which we must use information in the class’s textbook. Every student has a Kindle, which has the textbook loaded on to it. All of the sighted students can easily read the material and complete the assignment independently,” Nusbaum read. “I, on the other hand, cannot read the book without the assistance of a sighted reader. Therefore, I am put at a severe disadvantage in completing the project when compared with my sighted classmates. … All of this because of a problem which can easily and inexpensively be solved by integrating text-to-speech software into your readers and making sure that your apps and information are accessible with that software.
For the nearly 8 million people in the US with some degree of vision impairment, the advent of ebooks and e-readers has been both a blessing and a burden. A blessing, because a digital library—everything from academic textbooks, to venerated classics, to romance novels—is never further away than your fingertips. A burden, because the explosion of ebooks has served as a reminder of how inaccessible technology really can be.
For more than a decade, the visually-impaired have been locked in an excruciatingly slow and circuitous battle against US copyright laws. And it’s left the visually-impaired with few options but to hack their way around digital barriers—just for the simple pleasure of reading a book.
Books, Blindness, and Barriers to Content
There’s no Library of Alexandria out there for visually-impaired readers. Only 1 percent of published books are available in braille. And while audiobooks are widely available through online platforms like Audible, the selection is relatively narrow. Audible boasts more than 150,000 titles, but that’s only 4 percent of the estimated 3.4 million books that are available through Amazon. If you’re looking for an independent author, or the collected stories of a minor, long-dead novelist, or a biography on anyone less celebrated than a celebrity or a world leader—you’re probably out of luck.
Still, many popular books are available on venues like Audible, so we asked Blake Reid—head of the Samuelson Glushko Technology Law & Policy Clinic—whether that was enough. Reid’s team works on media and accessibility issues; they explained: “Yes, audiobooks are already on the market. But there are not very many of them, and virtually none for technical or academic subjects.”
That’s why ebooks and e-readers are especially promising for people with disabilities. There are well over a million ebooks in the Kindle’s Store alone—everything from cookbooks to magazines to how-to books. A lot of e-readers come prepackaged with a Text-to-Speech (TTS) feature, which converts the words on an e-reader’s screen into a synthesized, human voice. Essentially, TTS reads a purchased ebook aloud—and that’s been an incredible tool for making the collective digital library more accessible, and more inclusive.
That is, until the copyright hounds got out.
When the Kindle 2 was released in 2009, it came with TTS functions that could be used across all Kindle ebooks. Publishers balked. They argued that TTS would negatively impact the audiobook market, and that a computer reading an ebook aloud constituted a violation of copyright.
Amazon conceded, and it gave publishers the option to opt-out of TTS. Publishers took advantage of this and removed this feature from a huge swath of books. And so, the doors to the collective digital library slammed shut on the blind and print-impaired once again.
“Blind people, when we ask for accessibility, we’re not doing it because we want anyone’s charity,” Chris told us. “We want equal access to the same information that anyone else could have access to. We have the mental capacity to compete on equal terms in education and in the workforce and in any other areas of life with our sighted counterparts. In order to do that, we are just asking for a very simple request from developers and engineers and institutions of higher education: and that is make sure that we have access to information that we need. We’ll take care of the rest.”
The situation has improved since Chris made his appeal to Amazon two years ago. TTS features have gotten more prevalent—but there are still critical accessibility gaps that need filling.
“Among the three main ebook distributors—Apple, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, text-to-speech support is limited. While Apple’s iPad has built-in text-to-speech functionality that works well with most formats of ebooks, including Apple’s own iBooks format, most Kindle devices do not,” Reid’s team explained. “Only the Kindle Fire has text-to-speech functionality, which can be (and often is) blocked by individual ebook publishers using DRM. Also, it is often difficult for readers who are visually impaired to determine which Kindle books have text-to-speech functionality disabled before purchase.”
DRM, or digital rights management, is a genteel term for digital handcuffs; it’s used to control access to copyrighted material. In ebooks, DRM stops pirates and profiteers from making thousands of copies of something like Tina Fey’s autobiography, and then selling them for cents on the dollar. Fair enough. But when it comes to accessibility, DRM becomes a barrier that can stop a reader with disabilities from listening to a good book.
Hacking for the Right to Read
That’s not to say that locks can’t be picked. Over the years, the print-impaired have found viable workarounds—hacks to pry open the doors to their digital library.
If a tablet doesn’t have a text-to-speech feature, you can modify it. Root the tablet and install a TTS app not sanctioned by the manufacturer. More commonly, though, people just strip the DRM off ebooks they buy. Then, the ebook can be uploaded to and read through an e-reader’s existing TTS feature. The problem is, both those workarounds are technically illegal under an esoteric clause in US copyright law.
Here’s why: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a 1998 law designed to protect digital content from infringement. Under Section 1201, it’s illegal to break a technological lock that protects copyrighted content—like an encryption over a tablet or DRM over an ebook. So, it’s not just a voided warranty that would-be readers have to worry about: Web-connected e-readers are essentially tablets, and you can’t legally root or jailbreak a tablet. Even if you just want to trick it out with a cool app that extends the device’s accessibility or functionality.
Breaking the DRM on an ebook is also technically a violation—-but the Librarian of Congress granted an exemption for people who are visually-impaired or have a print impairment. But the ruling is interestingly idiosyncratic: it’s legal for someone with a disability to strip DRM from ebooks, but it’s not legal for developers to create programs or apps that strip DRM.
And the exemption isn’t permanent. Every three years, advocates have to request for the Librarian of Congress to extend his previous exemptions. Which means that people with disabilities are, essentially, legally mandated to ask for permission to read a book. Every three years. Which is what they’ve done for more than a decade.
And now it’s time to ask again. Reid’s team at the University of Colorado submitted, in conjunction with the American Foundation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, the petition to renew the current exemption.
In a seemingly endless loop that calls to mind the dilemma of Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day, we, our colleagues, and our pro bono counsel have poured hundreds of hours of work into a lengthy bureaucratic process that requires us to document and re-document the accessibility of copyrighted works,” said Mark Richert of the American Foundation for the Blind during a congressional hearing into the DMCA, “and argue and re-argue the rarely-disputed premise that making books and movies accessible to people with disabilities does not infringe or even remotely threaten the rights of copyright holders.
Advocates narrowly procured the exemption for ebook DRM over the objection of the register of copyright when they applied in 2010. This year, it’s anyone’s guess—and that’s part of the problem.
Copyright law is taking away our rights. It means that developers are afraid of writing applications to help the blind. It means that consumers are afraid of repairing and tinkering with their things. And it means people with visual impairments, like Chris, don’t know if they’ll be able to keep listening to some of their books.
“For me, if I could describe Text-to-Speech in one word, it would be liberating,” said Chris, now 16 and a junior in high school. “It’s a kind of freedom. I, as a blind person, don’t have access always to most kinds of information that sighted people have access to. It’s a kind of freedom when I know that I have access to that information.”
Reading is a basic human right, and no one—not the Librarian of Congress and not corporate copyright lobbyists—should have the power to take that away.