Why Copyright and DRM are barriers for Disabled

For humanities scholars in particular, studying means three things: reading, reading, reading. This is a huge problem, especially for the blind and visually impaired.

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No Access to scientific Texts

When I studied political science, that was from 2000 to 2005, there was almost nothing. There were no cheap computers with cheap screen readers, there were almost no eBooks. The supply of literature for the visually impaired was simply catastrophic. The university had had some books read on tapes - yes, on audio tapes. But even a few hundred books are practically nothing compared to the holdings of the university library, which comprise several million volumes. You have to know that in some departments there are new editions of books almost every year and it is banned to quote from an older edition. This plays less of a role in political science than it does for lawyers or psychologists. A political scientist must also have access to a much larger range of books: practically any book can be important for a political scientist, depending on his topic.

Nothing substential has changed in the generally poor supply situation. The restrictive right of using prevents libraries from making digital books available in a reasonable manner. Often enough, only a limited number of digital books can be borrowed. Or the e-books have to be read at the university library terminals, which of course are not equipped with screen readers or zoom software.

I'm always reminded of the librarian from Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, who jealously guards that the monks only see what he considers relevant to them. There is no shortage of digital books, there are only organizations preventing proper access.

Difficulties to work in Science

I admire every blind person who has actually made it to a doctorate. For my diploma thesis I pored over several dozen books. There should have been a lot more, but I couldn't do it in time. At that time, I sat in the library for around 50 hours a week. Not because I was such a diligent student, but because it takes me three times as long as a sighted person to read a text.

The technical equipment is a nice thing. There are closed reading systems with scanners, text recognition and reading functions. The reading systems are poorly suited for studying the humanities. In the field of science, precise character citation is required, so it is enough if a character has been incorrectly recognized and taken over in order to quote incorrectly. It's not that bad when you're studying, it only becomes highly problematic if you want to pursue an academic career. If you quote badly, you are not a plagiarist, but you will quickly be mistaken for sloppy work.

As a visually impaired person, it is great fun copying quotes from books. It's not just annoying that you have to do it. The bad thing is that you know full well that it could be a lot easier if the boosk were made available in digital form.

Technical Advancement and old Rules

It's hard to believe that in 2023 you can and must still employ people to scan texts for the blind. You could really do better and more meaningful things with your time. Basically, copyright and using rights block efficient study. This affects not only the visually impaired and the blind, but also people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, those with reading/spelling difficulties and also people who cannot turn the pages of books due to restricted mobility.

The situation could be much better today. After all, there are e-book readers, there is the Apple system with a screen reader and built-in Screen Magnifier. Only the reading material is still missing, especially in German-speaking countries.

This is particularly bad for people who want to work in science. But also for people who work in a demanding job. If someone could only access the books that are available as e-books or audio books, they would have a big problem as an autodidact. There are hardly any non-fiction books as e-books, apart from the "get rich and happy in 30 days" guidebooks, which nobody needs. The German publishers and their interest groups like to talk a lot about the possibilities of digitization, but in practice they appear to be big blockers. Above all, Adobe's own system for digital rights management prevents efficient and convenient access to digital books.

What really amazed me is the lack of reaction from the disabled associations. One would think that DBSV, DVBS and whatever they are called would make clear the need for digital books and the right to access them. However, I haven't heard anything yet. This may also be due to the fact that the blind and visually impaired on facilitated access, admittedly at the expense of other disadvantaged groups.

So it doesn't surprise me so much that none of the artists are committed to it. There isn't a Sven Regener who can give a little prime-time rant. And there is nobody at Zeit Online or anywhere else who would publish that .

Paying for Access is oka

As far as I'm concerned, I'm quite willing to pay for these products. I pay the same price as a sighted person would pay. Someone should explain to me why I should pay more, e.g. once for the printed book and again for a digital version.

Access to literature is extremely difficult for the blind and partially sighted. Compared to less rich countries, however, we live in a paradise in Germany. After all, we have access to the Internet and meanwhile access to relatively inexpensive assistive technology. Elsewhere, an iPhone costs more than a year's salary.

Treat for blind Access

The current issue is that books can be prepared in a way that is suitable for the blind and exchanged internationally between organizations without asking the copyright holders. Otherwise, national organizations have to prepare each book themselves, which is expensive, time-consuming and totally unnecessary. A large part of the work could be saved because all books from the last ten to 20 years should already be available in digital form. If there is anyone else who typesets their books analogously, I personally apologize for my error.

The Treaty for the Blind is intended to regulate that not every tiny country has to prepare the literature. It is particularly about internationally usable literature from the Anglo-Saxon, Francophone, Spanish or Portuguese-speaking countries, i.e. literature that could be exchanged internationally. However, the treaty has only been negotiated for 25 years.

Why only the Blind?

I find the whole thing problematic as there are other disabled people and people with reading difficulties for whom such an agreement would be even more helpful.

The argument of the content industry

The content industry reasoning is the usual. Actually, one has nothing against a barrier regulation that makes it easier for the blind to access literature. But if you make an exception here, you soften the copyright and open the door for further barrier regulations. This is only superficially about books, in reality the lobbyists of other industries are fighting a proxy war. They deny us access to knowledge because they see their own interests threatened.

There is hardly a democratic country in which copyright and distribution rights are automatically softened just because an international treaty sets restrictions for a narrowly defined area.

The problems of access to literature

It is often difficult to understand what access difficulties there are for the individual disabled groups, so I would like to briefly go into them here. Let's start with the large print.

The problem with large print books is that the number of salable books is often so small that printing becomes too expensive. Books are laid out by desktop publishers, who take care of typesetting, text flow, and other typographical requirements. The whole game has to be repeated for large print books, since the entire text flow, the paragraphs and the type area naturally change as a result of the font size and a different font. Of course, it's not worth it if you can only sell a few dozen books. That's why print on demand doesn't make sense for this area either, the costs for the layout of the large print don't pay off.

However, it does not make sense from another point of view either, especially in the case of severe visual impairments, the individual eyesight, visual field defects and other diseases are so different that they cannot be compensated for by such measures. The same applies here as for websites, the basic layout should be made as accessible as possible, but in the end it is important that people can adapt it to their needs. In the case of books, this would mean that the books should work well with screen readers, this is achieved with a flexible binding - the book should lie as flat as possible when it is opened. The better alternative are electronic books, which of course also have to be adaptable. A majority of people who buy eBook readers are older people who appreciate the layout customization features.

Another problem arises when translating books into audio or Braille. A lot of people are always involved in the production of a professional audio book. The narrator comes first, so to speak, but there is also the editor who prepares the book or the sound engineer who takes care of the recording and post-production. In the case of Braille books, the texts must first be translated into Braille. This happens partly automatically, but also has to be proofread, because some things cannot be translated automatically.

Libraries usually send books for the blind by post. In Germany, shipping for the blind is free. In the past, audio books were sent on tapes in small plastic boxes, which could be quite heavy. The books are now being produced and sent as MP3 CDs, for which not only the postman should be grateful. There are currently an estimated 60,000 titles that can be borrowed and a significantly higher number of commercial audio books. By no means all books are offered as audio books, and the situation is particularly bad for specialist books. But there is also hardly anyone who seriously wanted to have a textbook as an audio book, such books are usually not read from cover to cover, as is usually the case with audio books.

The situation is even worse for Braille books. An average paperback, translated into Braille, can be the size of a phone book, which is the kind of thing you used to put next to your rotary phone back in the day. For the seven walls of Harry Potter you would have to clear a whole wall of shelves. So it is a cost but also a space factor.

The situation is similar for other disability groups. People who cannot hold books or turn the pages due to motor impairments need digital books that they can control with their software. Functional illiterates and those with reading and spelling difficulties benefit from the option of having books read to them in a structured manner. People with learning disabilities need texts in plain language. Here, too, barriers similar to those for books for the blind are likely to exist with regard to international exchange. Last but not least, this also applies to texts that are translated into sign language. I don't know if there are actually books in sign language, but I wouldn't rule it out.

In other words, many disabled people benefit from easier copyright and copy protection.

Why we need this

It's not just about access to culture, but also about access to education in general. Despite all the internet, multimedia material and all gadgets, most relevant information for science and further education is in books or book-like products. The publishing and education industries have proven to be blockers of digitization for years, even if they claim the opposite. One rightly scolds the golden cages of Apple or Amazon, but it is more convenient than dealing with the DRM of the publishers. We actually wanted to read books and not study manuals.

The whole thing is not available for free

There is the concept of disadvantage compensation. This means that the disadvantages caused by a disability should be compensated for by making things easier. Many confuse this with privileges and often demand things that go beyond that: free long-distance travel, free mobility centers, free cars and so on.

The situation is similar with books. However, I am not demanding that all books should be available to blind or disabled people free of charge. The demand amounts to equal accessibility for disabled and non-disabled people. There are tangible disadvantages for the blind, for example the poor accessibility of On-Leih, which would be compensated. Otherwise, all disabled people should pay the same price for books as non-disabled people.

The strange thing about the behavior of publishers is that there are few more eager readers than blind people. It may be that the average German buys twelve books a year, in my experience the average blind person should read one book a week - depending on how much free time he has, it can certainly be more. Most of them would also pay the money for these books if they could get hold of the books like the sighted. I know a few blind people who would buy the current Dan Brown immediately and ignore the abridged audio version that probably exists. They don't have a choice though, as the DRM prevents them from getting a decent hold of the digital version.

Now, blind people may not be a particularly large target group, but I can imagine that it is no different with other disabled people. Their reading consumption is likely to be well above average if they receive accessible books. If we add the group of functional illiterates, we have a very large group of people who would buy books if they were presented in a form accessible to them.

But I also find the behavior of the German and other blind associations all the more annoying. Blind people - especially in the West - are not a particularly large group. It may be that the American Association for the Blind is powerful, but the German one is certainly not. If organizations for people with disabilities merged and also included the functionally illiterate and dyslexic, they could become much more powerful. Instead, they are trying to fend for themselves, with little success, I fear.

DRM and Accessibility

Digital rights management is one of the strangest stories the commercial culture industry has dreamed up. It punishes the loyal customer while barely hindering the resourceful hacker.

Audible, for example, has a nice range of audio books - some exclusive - with a very good offer for subscribers. The whole offer becomes unattractive because Audible is trying to push through its own *.aa file format, which most MP3 players don't support. Audible also requires you to use their proprietary software to download and manage the files. A software that does not exist for Linux systems. I haven't tested the software for accessibility myself, but installing additional software for downloading files is barrier enough. The providers Libri or Sofort Hören do it much better, they offer digitally watermarked files that can be used on all MP3 players.

Similar odd things are happening in the e-book reader space. While Amazon wants to push through its own format and the Kindle only under massive pressure from blind associations and other groups can be used with voice output, the beautiful, accessible E-PUB becomes an unsuitable format. In order to be able to use the books, it is necessary to install the Adobe Digital Editions program, which itself is not accessible. Ironically, e-books, which are already digitized, cannot be read by the blind.

Blind people are of course also welcome to watch or listen to videos. At least with dialogue-heavy films, it is sufficient to hear the sound to be able to follow the action. A wide range of downloads has not yet established itself here, but if it does, it will probably be as restrictive as e-books or audio books.

With the digital watermark , all of these formats could easily be personalized and thus protected from distribution. The formats remain independent of a specific program, a platform, a specific computer and, above all, device-independent.

The concern to protect one's own rights is understandable. However, the goal cannot be to patronize the customers.

That is why blind people must also demand digital content

  • platform independent
  • program independent
  • regardless of specific devices or operating systems

The music industry has gained enough experience over the past ten years to know that the media economy will not be successful with such models in the medium term.