In the light of Judith Sullivan’s 2006 WIPO Study on Copyright Limitations and Exceptions for the Visually Impaired, the HathiTrust ruling appears to be fundamentally flawed.
Sullivan examines exceptions for the benefit of visually impaired people in the laws of 57 countries and provides case studies illustrating the problems and solutions involved.
She notes: “The ideal is for accessibility to be built into the ordinary publishing process” and “Although exceptions to copyright are unlikely to deliver full accessibility…. they may nevertheless be justified, but need to balance the interests of all stakeholders and work in ways that encourage rather than deter more comprehensive solutions.”
Instead of encouraging more comprehensive solutions the HathiTrust ruling excludes those involved in the ordinary publishing process (the rights holders) apparently in the belief that there is no market, there never has been a market, and there never will be a market, for accessible books. This belief is open to challenge.
Sullivan gives many examples of mainstream publishers who work with disability organisation to provide books in accessible formats at the time of publication. Her examples show that good things can happen when everyone works together (and presumably everyone in the production chain is paid a fair price for their work).
A further irony is that the HathiTrust ruling has consigned accessible book production to a disability ghetto at a time when, thanks to the new technology and our rapidly ageing population, the market for books in accessible formats has never been greater.
Talking books are no longer the preserve of the blind. The commercial market for audiobooks is thriving among people of all age groups and abilities.
Apple has created a gold standard in accessible devices for the commercial market. Today the iphone, with its built-in VoiceOver and screen reading technology, is the most popular phone with the blind community.
The business case for accessible publishing outlined on the RNIB website (the UK equivalent of America’s NFB) makes the following points:
* in 2008 mature book buyers (aged 61+) accounted for around a third of all books purchased, despite representing only a fifth of the population.
* the proportion of people with sight problems rises steeply from about 1 in 30 in the population as a whole to around 1 in 5 in the older age group.
* research shows that mature buyers were early adopters of e-readers. Anecdotal feedback suggests that the ability to increase font size was a big factor in their adoption.
Add in the spending power (the ‘silver dollar’) of all the baby boomers now reaching retirement age in both the developed and developing worlds, and the business case for accessible publishing becomes even stronger.
Research shows that baby boomer retirees are likely to be longer lived, more active, wealthier, better educated and more tech savvy than their predecessors. When one in five of them develops irreversible vision loss (most commonly glaucoma or macular degeneration) the market for books in accessible formats will escalate.
These economic, technological and demographic factors provide strong incentives for a thriving market in accessible books for people with a wide range of print disabilities. It would be a pity if organisations committed to making accessible books on a not-for-profit basis for a very small section of the disability community found themselves locked out of taking advantage of this opportunity by their copyright exempt status.