Copyright and Accessibility

Last week I received an education in the world of publishing for print-disabled people, including the blind and dyslexic.  I was in Copenhagen to speak at Future Publishing and Accessibility, a conference produced by Nota, an organization within the Danish Ministry of Culture that provides materials for the print-disabled, and the DAISY Consortium, the promoter of global standards for talking books.  The conference brought together speakers from the accessibility and mainstream publishing fields.

Before the conference, I had been wondering what the attitude of the accessibility community would be towards copyright.  Would they view it as a restrictive construct that limits the spread of accessible information, allowing it to remain in the hands of publishers that put profit first?

As it turns out, the answer is no.  The accessibility community, generally speaking, has a balanced view of copyright that reflects the growing importance of the print disabled to publishers as a business matter.

Digital publishing technology might be a convenience for normally sighted people, but for the print disabled, it’s a huge revelation.  The same e-publishing standards that promote ease of production, distribution, and interoperability for mainstream consumers make it possible to automate and thus drastically lower the cost and time to produce content in Braille, large print, or spoken-word formats.

Once you understand this, it makes perfect sense that the IDPF (promoter of the EPUB standards for e-books) and DAISY Consortium share several key members.  It was also pointed out at the conference that the print disabled constitute an audience that expands the market for publishers by roughly 10%.  All this adds up to a market for accessible content that’s just too big to ignore.

As a result, the interests of the publishing industry and the accessibility community are aligning.  Accessibility experts respect copyright because it helps preserve incentives for publishers to convert their products into versions for the print disabled.  Although more and more accessibility conversion processes can be automated, manual effort is still necessary — particularly for complex works such as textbooks and scientific materials.

Publishers, for their part, view making content accessible to the print disabled as part of the value that they can add to content — value that still can’t exist without financial support and investment.

One example is Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher.  Elsevier has undertaken a broad, ambitious program to optimize its ability to produce versions of its titles for the print disabled.  One speaker from the accessibility community called the program “the gold standard” for digital publishing.  Not bad for a company that some in the academic community refer to as the Evil Empire.

This is not by any means to suggest that publishers and the accessibility community coexist in perfect harmony.  There is still a long way to go to reach the state articulated at the conference by George Kerscher, who is both Secretary General of DAISY and President of IDPF: to make all materials available to the print disabled at the same time to sell structured settlement, and for the same price, as mainstream content.

The Future Publishing and Accessibility conference was timed to take place just before negotiations begin over a proposed WIPO treaty that would facilitate the production of accessible materials and distribution of them across borders.  The negotiations are taking place this and next week in Marrakech, Morocco.  This proposed treaty is already laden with concerns from the copyright industries that its provisions will create opportunities for abuse, and reciprocal concerns from the open Internet camp that the treaty will be overburdened with restrictions designed to limit such abuse.  But as I found out in Denmark last week, there is enough practical common ground to hope that accessibility of content for the print disabled will continue to improve.

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