E-books have long been recognized as a reading format that is particularly friendly to the disabled—at least when DRM is not involved. Blind readers can pass these files directly to their braille readers or speech synthesizers and enjoy “reading” a good book much the same as the rest of us.
Ars Technica has a most interesting article about the US government’s support of a proposed WIPO treaty that mandates copyright exemptions (otherwise known as “compulsory licensing”) and DRM-breaking permissions for organizations that provide reading material to the disabled.
In other words, these organizations would be permitted to create e-books, audiobooks, and other disabled-friendly media in return for paying a set fee to copyright holders or the government.
The government writes that it believes strong exemptions lead to stronger copyright, and is working toward an approach balanced between proper copyright exemptions and proper copyright enforcement.
Organizations such as the MPAA, RIAA, and US Chamber of Commerce do not share this point of view, however. They point out that existing copyright treaties up to now have focused strictly on enforcement, not exemptions, and fear this could be the beginning of a slippery slope that would lead to an overall weakened copyright system.
As Ars Technica points out, the government’s stance suggests a strange sort of ambivalence given its continued participation in the secretive ACTA treaty talks. On the other hand, it is great to see representatives of our government come out in favor of a copyright treaty mandating exemptions. We need more of those.
It’s worth noting (as I think has been done on this blog in the past) that the Librarian of Congress and the Registrar of Copyrights issued a three-year exemption from the DMCA by “users are, or are likely to be, adversely affected in their ability to make noninfringing uses due to the prohibition on circumvention of access controls” for “literary works distributed in ebook format when all existing ebook editions of the work (including digital text editions made available by authorized entities) contain access controls that prevent the enabling either of the book’s read-aloud function or of screen readers that render the text into a specialized format.” According to the latest document linked here, that exemption has been extended “on an interim basis.”