Accessible ebooks: How DRM and copyright laws are inflicting a book famine

Dan Pescod, Campaigns Manager for RNIB, explains how, although ebooks can be made accessible to blind and partially sighted people, DRM and copyright laws prevent the format changes, and why the World Blind Union is calling for an international treaty setting out an exception to copyright law for blind people.

Image: CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: cubicgarden (Ian Forrester)

 Imagine going into a bookshop and being told that you were not allowed to buy 95% of the books on the shelves. Now picture other customers in that shop browsing freely and buying whichever title they wanted. Would you be disappointed? Angry, perhaps?

Blind people face such a ‘book famine’ every day. Why is that?

Well, it’s not because blind people cannot read. It’s certainly not because they don’t want to read, either.  The problem is that very few books are ever published in “accessible formats” that a blind or partially sighted person can read.  Braille is perhaps the most well-known of these accessible formats. A Braille book contains the same words as that of the print version, but these words are codified in a system of dots which can be read by touch.  There are other accessible formats used by the many people with sight problems who don’t read Braille. These include large print and audio books.

Publishers have long “turned a blind eye” to blind people as a market segment, believing that it would not be commercially viable to make accessible books for them. The very few books available to blind and partially sighted people are therefore mainly provided by charities with limited resources working for blind people, such as my own, RNIB.

Readers of this magazine will know that recently, digital publishing technology has been creating a revolution in the way books are published, sold and read. This revolution could do great things to help end the book famine faced by blind people, too.

Ebooks in particular seem to herald a golden age of accessibility. They could “speak” their text to blind people, or their print be enlarged in a user friendly way for those with some sight.

However, most ebook readers on the market are not fully accessible. If you are blind you’ll need the eBook reader to “speak” the menu to you- as well as the text of the book itself- so that you can buy your ebook, find the one you want to read from your collection, and so on. In fact, not all ebook readers have a “text-to speech” facility at all, and those that do often don’t speak the menu.  What’s more, where it exists this facility is often disabled by publishers whose authors have complained that such a service might conflict with the rights to an audio version of the book.

If you are partially sighted you might want to enlarge the text or change the colour contrast, but not all ebook readers can do this either.

Also, digital rights management (“DRM”) can prevent a blind person from format-shifting an ebook from, say, their PC to a portable Braille display machine, or disabled screen-reading text-to-speech technology.

There is in any case a long way to go before most countries even develop an ebook market. Developing countries in particular are perhaps still years away from doing so.  Not to mention cost. Blind and partially sighted people are among the least well-off and therefore the least able to afford high-tech means to read books.

So for the foreseeable future, we need to ensure that blind people’s organisations themselves can make as many books accessible as possible.

One crucial part of doing this is ensuring that copyright law facilitates, rather than hinders, both the making of accessible books in a given country, and the pooling of resources across national borders.

When charities convert the print or digital version of a book into an ‘accessible format’, they are of course making a copy of the book. That doesn’t break copyright law in countries where there is a legal ‘exception’ to copyright law for the benefit of blind people. However, only a third of the world’s countries have such an exception. Also, if a blind person’s organisation in England, say, reformats a digital version of the latest Harry Potter book so that it can be easily converted to Braille or large print, copyright law prevents that ‘master file’ from being sent to another blind person’s organisation in another English-speaking country. That means that the time and cost of re-formatting needs to be replicated by blind people’s organisations in different countries across the globe, costing thousands of Euros in duplicated efforts. That’s money that could have been spent making more titles accessible. 

The World Blind Union and its European subsidiary the European Blind Union have, these past few years, been campaigning for an international treaty requiring that all countries had an exception to copyright law for blind people, and permitting the sharing of these ‘accessible formats’ between these charities across the world. Blind people would be able to read thousands more books as a result.

Unlike most of the world’s countries, the EU’s member states, except for the UK and Czech Republic so far, have been resisting such a treaty, which the world intellectual property organisation (WIPO) in Geneva could finally agree on in July. The reason for this EU opposition is twofold. Firstly, there is a strong publisher lobby against the treaty in influential countries such as France and Germany especially. The publishers have not opposed our treaty because they feel that it lacks merit, but rather because they fear that it would set a precedent for other international treaties providing exceptions to copyright for other groups. Secondly, the EU member states oppose because of innate conservatism. France has been the most open and vociferous opponent. How ironic that the country which gave us Braille opposes the legal means to make more books accessible to blind people.

That’s why the EBU has just published a map to show which EU Member States are prepared publicly to back or oppose a legally-binding treaty.

Now is the time for the EU’s Member States to accept the will of blind people and of the European Parliament, and back a WIPO treaty. You can help! Using the link on the EBU webpage, you can write to urge your country’s WIPO representative to come out in favour of the treaty. If the EU stops its delaying tactics, the treaty could be agreed in July.  If your country does already support the treaty, then you might also want to write to EU Commissioner Michel Barnier, who is in charge of this matter for the Commission. You could ask him to do all he can to convince the sceptical countries, including his own, France, to back our treaty.

For more in-depth briefing on this issue, please follow this link:

With your help, we can get this treaty and help end the book famine!


Dan Pescod is Campaigns Manager, Europe, International and Accessibility, at the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK (RNIB), vice chair of the World Blind Union’s right to read working group, and coordinates the European Blind Union’s work on copyright issues. Dan campaigns in the UK and internationally to gain greater access to information, rights and services for blind and partially sighted people.

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Comments (1)

  1. john e miller:
    Jun 25, 2012 at 10:27 PM

    From the above:

    "The publishers have not opposed our treaty because they feel that it lacks merit, but rather because they fear that it would set a precedent for other international treaties providing exceptions to copyright for other groups."

    ... and Mr. Pescod and his Treaty co-proponents have done nothing to address this concern. They only repeat and further repeat that Rights granted under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) obligates WIPO Member countries to support the Treaty and ignore the concerns of the pro-Rights groups.

    At the upcoming WIPO SCCR 24 in July, for the Treaty opponents a stall is as good as a win; the Treaty definitions can be debated ad nauseum. The US delegation said at a recent WTO copyright meeting that even the form any Treaty instrument might take is still undecided -- so to say an agreement might be reached at this session will is the same wishful thinking the WBU negotiating team has stated at previous WIPO sessions.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Dan Pescod on Jun 18, 2012

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