Digital copy right or wrong?

What rights do you have when you own a book? Daniel Reetz has built his own book scanning device (Wired) and comments show how other people routinely make digital copies. Does ownership give you the right to do this? Is there a difference if you’ve borrowed a book from a library, or a friend or found it on the train Bookcrossing style  It’s clear I need to get my head around the law on digital copyright; like using Refworks, or accessing the electronic journal database, it’s not one of my strongest points so any suggestions of where to start will be most welcome.

What I am clear about is that those who have control over access to information have power but it’s those who have the least power in society who seem to be most affected and have the quietest voice. As a result we hear less about the text discrimination they suffer on a daily basis and most about corporation fears regarding revenue losses. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) want the blind to pay for any additional means of access and the US Authors Guild argue that a speaking e-reader counts as an ‘unauthorized public performance’ so should be banned. Amazon are no better; offering authors the option of disabling Kindle’s read-aloud function and I’m totally unimpressed by them saying they will soon produce ‘a blind-accessible Kindle’ – why haven’t they done so already!

Google are going to  pay $125 million to resolve claims by authors and publishers of Google-scanned books and will pay legal fees, as well as create a Book Rights Registry where copyright holders can register works to get a cut of Internet advertising revenue and online book sales. Why can’t Google simply pay what it takes to ensure virtual text can be listened to as well as seen? Why can’t Amazon put the needs of the visually impaired first instead of last? Why can’t there be some joined up thinking on access to digital data to end the current discrimination?

Yes, this is procrastination as the assignment is still largely undone, but it needs to be said and we all need to take responsibility for adding our voices to raise awareness of these issues.

seen but not heard

In reply to THES Librarians desperate for e-books

Generic comments like “They [e-books] don’t get stolen, they don’t get their pages ripped out and they are always available when people want them.” demonstrate the ME-Model – a computer user with Mouse and Eyes who often fails to think about those with neither.  Availability is not the same as access and even if Digital Britain’s aim for equal broadband access is realised then this access will always be more equal for some than for others.

The technology used to digitise is only half the story. E-books require an appropriate means of reading them. All too often access is obstructed by the very same technologies used in their creation. Chickens and eggs come to mind. We operate in a sighted world where designers assume the user is seeing rather than listening. With effective screen reading software, digital data has the potential to widen participation and crack open some of the barriers to knowledge acquisition. In reality the technology that enables also disables. There can be nothing more frustrating than knowing the text may well be “available anywhere and anytime” but it can only be seen and not heard.

digital data = digital divide

I take the point raised in a comment on a previous post  about digitisation and have been wondering if there’s a chicken and egg situation here. Which came first? The digital data or the means to distribute it? Let me give an example of where I’m coming from when I say digital data is increasing the digital divide.

A Yahoo user group has uploaded a pdf file (single format, no Adobe Reader, another issue) and sent out a group email with a link to the document. To access it the blind user has to go through a process of identifying the link, saving the link, then opening the link, which only then takes them to the login page for the group but that involves logging into Yahoo. A blind person has problems joining a Yahoo group in the first place because that involves a captcha and they can’t see it – or hear it – so someone else has to set it up for them – but when they’re on their own they don’t know their login details – as sighted people we can’t always remember our login details – and they can’t read them – and you can’t multi task with this screen reader so even if you had them stored on an email then to get back to that, then back to the Yahoo login page, would be a lengthy process (and in our fast mouse-click world an incredibly tortuous one). They want to read this file; the email has made it sound interesting and relevant and the whole nature of the group is about self help and empowerment but they can’t access it. The result is ever increasing levels of frustration at being excluded and being dependent on others. I agree that digitisation should be increasing access to the written word, like the printing press revolutionised access to text; but on an individual level that was only so long as you could read the appropriate language. We operate independently in a sighted world but visual impairment (VI) takes away that independence and while digitisation should be widening participation, the reality for VI is that access is hidden behind multiple layers of technology and you can’t separate the two. Chicken or Egg?  Which was my point in saying “increasing digitisation of text is also increasing the digital divide and putting in place yet more barriers to participation”.


If you’ve ever tried to use an e-book you’ll know there are serious limitations; you need a reader, preferably portable; you can’t easily flick through the pages to go back to a specific sentence or idea, you can’t annotate the pages. E-books are increasingly being adopted across the sector and hyped as a cost effective solution to issues of space and availability. But let’s not forget that e-books are a visual medium and increasing digitisation of text is also increasing the digital divide and putting in place yet more barriers to participation.

Under the DDA  public bodies are meant to enusre reasonable adjustments (so those with disabilities are not discriminated against compared to those without the same disability) in terms of access to services including libraries and information resources. But academic e-book publishers have no such requirements. As libraries increase their subscriptions to electronic resources so they are moving away from their duty to ensure equality. This issue was raised in a recent post on the JISC Mail Disabilities and Technology forum for Tech-Dis  [TECH-DIS@JISCMAIL.AC.UK] where Simon Ball, Senior TechDis Advisor, describes improving the accessibility of ‘e-book and e-journal delivery software’ as a ‘priority area’.  With no disrespect to TechDis, the words ‘horse’, ‘ stable’ and ‘door’ inevitably  come to mind. It’s good to see that they are working directly with the RNIB on this. Rapid adoption of e-books across the sector reinforces the invisibility of accessibility legislation and how addressing the issues continues to be a ‘bolt-on’ exercise rather than integral to new developments.

As a society we seem to be increasingly failing our more vulnerable members. The recent statement by the PM (following the  publication of  the Digital Britain report), that that a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as “an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water”  and the proposal to tax telephone lines to provide it, is a classic example of running before walking. Weakness in provision of the fundamentals is then compounded by public institutions such as the British Library whose digitisation of newspapers project has resulted in commercial ‘pay-as-you-go’ access to the nations history. Instead of climbing up towards greater integration and awareness of the need to cater for diversity, the needs of the socially vulnerable seem to be sliding back down into invisibility.

visual impairment

Supporting visually impaired people using the internet highlights how little attention is paid to ensuring websites are accessible. It’s frustration overload; as if finding your way around the keyboard isn’t difficult enough you are then reliant on ‘listening’ to a disembodied electronic voice reading out the html sitting behind the website. It can’t make assumptions or use previous knowledge; it can only read what the designer has put there.

Online information is still designed primarily to be a visual experience. There are standards and guidelines galore but wouldn’t it be easier to ask a visually impaired person what works and what doesn’t work?

A leading supermarket has done some work on making its online shopping site accessible to the visually impaired. BUT there are still problems. It’s 2009. What happened to compliance with disability legislation that started over a decade ago? Why is it that the most vulnerable members of our society – to whom internet access can offer opportunities to re-engage through digital data – are still being discriminated against?

It’s not a technical issue; it’s a human one – it’s a social, cultural and political one. The Internet could be fully accessible and it isn’t; and that reflects badly on everyone of us working with virtual environments.