How Copyright Law Keeps E-Books Inaccessible for People With Disabilities

What's to come?
March 20 2013 1:06 PM

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act Is Even Worse Than You Think

It keeps e-books, online video, and more inaccessible to people with disabilities.

Winona Brackett, 12, read from her Braille science school book on Wednesday, March 25, 2009, in Stuart, Fla.
A student reads from a Braille science school book.

Photo by Steve Mitchell/AP

Recently, the White House made about 114,000 new friends by agreeing that it should be legal to unlock your cellphone. In a response to a We the People petition, a White House adviser wrote that the Obama administration would work to address a recent decision by the librarian of Congress that made unlocking your cellphone illegal under the anti-circumvention measures of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The unlocking furor is just the latest example of popular opposition to the DMCA’s dreaded anti-circumvention measures. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently issued a report arguing that over the last 15 years, the DMCA has impeded scientific research, innovation, fair use, and more. But among the DMCA’s many flaws is a significant one of which most people aren’t aware: For more than a decade, the act has imposed a barrier to access for people with disabilities. It hinders access to books, movies, and television shows by making the development, distribution, and use of cutting-edge accessibility technology illegal.

Making creative works accessible often involves transforming content from one medium to another—such as adapting the audio of a television show to closed captions to make it accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Copyright law ordinarily vests authors of creative works with the exclusive right to create adaptations, such as translations to foreign languages. But making works accessible to people with disabilities is arguably exempt from copyright law under the fair use doctrine and other laws like the Chafee Amendment to the Copyright Act. Congress, federal courts, the U.S. Copyright Office, and even the World Intellectual Property Organization have begun to recognize that it’s bad policy to block efforts to create accessible versions of copyrighted works.

At least, that’s the case with physical and analog media. But publishers, video programmers, and other copyright owners lock down digital content with digital rights management technology designed to limit users’ ability to access, copy, and adapt copyrighted works to specific circumstances. And copyright owners frequently fail to account for the need to adapt DRM-encumbered works to make them accessible to people with disabilities. For example, e-books often include DRM technology that prevents people who are blind or visually impaired from running e-books that they have lawfully purchased through a text-to-speech converter that reads the books aloud. Similarly, Internet-distributed video and DVD and Blu-ray discs include DRM features that prevent researchers from developing advanced closed captioning and video description technologies that make movies and television shows accessible. (For example, some Internet-delivered videos don't include closed captions at all, and subtitles on DVD and Blu-ray discs can be incomplete, riddled with errors, or so badly formatted that they can't be read.)

Bypassing this DRM technology is often trivial from a technical perspective. But the DMCA makes it illegal—even if the person bypassing DRM is doing so for a noninfringing use like making it accessible to people with disabilities. If you want to get around the DMCA, there is no fair use; instead, you must petition the librarian of Congress for a special exemption to circumvent a class of works, such as e-books. The proceeding to consider exemption petitions, known as the “triennial review,” takes place only once every three years and requires petitioners to navigate a complex bureaucratic process, satisfy an incredibly high burden of proof, invest months of effort, and overcome opposition from copyright lobbying groups with nearly bottomless resources. It’s no wonder the vast majority of exemption petitions are denied.

Even if a petitioner can successfully make a case for an exemption, a separate part of the DMCA still bars her from distributing accessibility technology with circumvention components to people with disabilities. Worse, the exemption will last for only three years, after which it will expire unless the petitioner successfully renews it. Making the same case over and over again isn’t just a waste of time and resources—it puts at risk any progress toward accessibility achieved under the previously granted exemption, which can be wiped away by the whim of the librarian of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office. (The librarian’s October decision to ban cellphone unlocking after exempting it for nearly six years is a prime example of such a whim.)

Beginning in 2002, the American Foundation for the Blind, which was later joined by the American Council of the Blind, has made a pilgrimage to the Copyright Office every three years, seeking out and renewing an exemption to bypass the DRM on locked versions of e-books so they can be read aloud using text-to-speech software. During the fourth triennial review in 2010 (which began in 2008 but took more than a year and half to complete), the register of copyrights, who leads the Copyright Office, urged the librarian of Congress to overturn the e-books exemption. Thankfully, the librarian of Congress overruled the register and renewed the exemption, then renewed it again during the fifth review in 2012. But next fall, the blind and visually impaired groups will have to trek back to the Copyright Office to make their case yet again.

I’m a teaching fellow and staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation clinic, where I work on media and accessibility issues. In 2011, my students and I filed a new exemption request on behalf of the nonprofit TDI (which advocates for equal media access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing) to allow researchers to develop advanced closed captioning and video description features to help make video programming more accessible—development hindered by the DMCA. (Gallaudet University and the Participatory Culture Foundation also signed the petition.) Crowdsourcing, customized user interfaces, error correction, and other innovations could help realize the goal of equal access to video programming on the Internet—a goal enshrined by Congress and President Obama in the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010.

But our proposal faced opposition from a coalition of copyright lobbyists who insisted, for example, that errors in closed captions were a “mere inconvenience” to people with disabilities and that developing accessibility features might even constitute copyright infringement. In the end, the librarian issued an exemption, but it was so riddled with caveats that it was difficult to identify precisely what accessibility research it was intended to enable, if any.

We also proposed a general exemption for accessibility technology, urging the librarian to take action in light of the widespread and demonstrated negative impact of the DMCA on the ability for people with disabilities to experience copyrighted works on equal terms. The Copyright Office did not even solicit comment on the proposal, and the librarian effectively ignored it.

Requiring nonprofit disability groups to ask permission from the government every three years and navigate a complex legal minefield to implement urgently needed accessibility technology is not compatible with progressive, conservative, or libertarian values; the goal of equal access for people with disabilities; or common sense. Even the librarian admitted in 2010 that the DMCA exemption process “is at best ill-suited to address the larger challenges of access.”

In 1903, the deaf-blind author and activist Helen Keller wrote in The Story of My Life: “Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends.” Yet more than a century later, the vast majority of the world’s printed and digital books—and many television shows, movies, video games, and other copyrighted works—still aren’t accessible to people with disabilities. Reforming the DMCA won’t fix that overnight—but it’s an important step on the road to equal access.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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