Legal restrictions on e-books disrupt blind people


End 2012, a 14-year-old high school student stood in front of a camera and started reading. Chris Nusbaum’s voice was calm and steady. So were his hands, which ran smoothly over the lines of braille as he made a personal appeal to Amazon, maker of the world’s most widely used e-reader.

“My class has just been assigned a project where we need to use information from the class manual. Each student has a Kindle, on which the textbook is loaded. All sighted students can easily read the material and complete the assignment independently,” Nusbaum read. “I, on the other hand, cannot read the book without the help of a sighted reader. Therefore, I am at a great disadvantage in completing the project compared to my sighted classmates. … All of this because of a problem that can be easily and cheaply solved by integrating text-to-speech software into your readers and ensuring that your applications and information are accessible with this software.

[#contributor: /contributors/592667d4f3e2356fd8009245]|||Kyle Wiens is the co-founder and CEO of iFixit, an online repair community and parts retailer known internationally for its open source repair manuals and product teardowns.|||

For the nearly 8 million people in the United States with some degree of visual impairment, the advent of e-books and e-readers has been both a blessing and a burden. A blessing, because a digital library — everything from textbooks to revered classics to romance novels — is never further than your fingertips. A burden, because the explosion of ebooks has reminded us how inaccessible technology can be.

For more than a decade, the visually impaired have been locked in an excruciatingly slow and devious battle against US copyright laws. And the visually impaired have little choice but to circumvent digital barriers, just for the sheer pleasure of reading a book.

Books, blindness and barriers to content

There is no Library of Alexandria for visually impaired readers. Only 1% of published books are available in Braille. And while audiobooks are widely available on online platforms like Audible, the selection is relatively narrow. Audible has over 150,000 titles, but that’s only 4% of the estimated 3.4 million books available on Amazon. If you’re looking for a freelance writer, or the collected stories of a long-dead minor novelist, or a biography about someone less famous than a celebrity or world leader, you’re probably out of luck.

Still, many popular books are available on sites like Audible, so we asked Blake Reid, head of the Samuelson Glushko Technology Law & Policy Clinic, if that’s enough. Reid’s team works on media and accessibility issues; they explained, “Yes, audiobooks are already on the market. But there are not many, and hardly any for technical or academic subjects.

This is why ebooks and e-readers hold particular promise for people with disabilities. There are well over a million ebooks in the Kindle Store alone, from cookbooks to magazines to how-to books. Many eReaders come prepackaged with a text-to-speech (TTS) feature, which converts words on an eReader’s screen into a synthesized human voice. Essentially, TTS reads a purchased ebook aloud, and it’s been an incredible tool in making the collective digital library more accessible and inclusive.

That is, until the copyright dogs come out.

When the Kindle 2 was released in 2009, it came with TTS features that could be used on all Kindle e-books. Publishers balk. They argued that TTS would negatively impact the audiobook market and that a computer reading an ebook aloud was copyright infringement.

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