Copyright and the blind reader

So a few days ago I mentioned that I saw copyright less as a matter of moral prerogative, and more like a bargain with society.

A few days ago, there was a discussion on RWA’s PAN loop about Bookshare.  For those of you who don’t know, Bookshare is an organization that scans in books, performs optical character recognition, and produces a computer-generated reading of the text of the book.  There are two additional pieces of information you need to know.  First, Bookshare gives away the computer-generated reading–for free–without royalties to the author.  Second, it only gives away that reading to people who are either legally blind, or who have some other documented disability.

Upon discovering Bookshare, someone on the loop was upset.  Her take was that even though the service was offered for blind people, Bookshare was copyright infringement.  And while she might be willing to grant the right to reproduce her book to benefit the disabled, nobody had asked her.  I don’t want to blame that author or others who agreed with her; I think that response is perfectly understandable.

I don’t share it, though–and it’s precisely because I don’t think of copyright as my prerogative, but instead, as a bargain with society.  Copyright–the granting thereof, and the enforcement thereof–is expensive.  It costs society money.  The copyright office uses taxpayer dollars.  The courts use even more taxpayer dollars.  It costs society in the form of legislation enacted to help prevent copyright infringement (for instance the Digital Millenium Copyright Act), which may lead to over-enforcement in some cases.  So why should society spend all that money, time, and effort?

The answer is, because it gets something back in return.  In return for recognizing my copyright for a limited time, after the time is over, society owns my work–I don’t.  (I’ll be dead then, but hey.)  In return for recognizing my copyright for a limited time, society gets the right to make fair use of my work–to parody my work or to quote selected portions for review and criticism or just for fun.

Also, it turns out that in return for recognizing my copyright for a limited time, if I publish my work, society gets the right to make copies available to the blind.  For free.  Without paying me a dime or asking for permission.  Don’t believe me?  Check this out.

If you think about this law, it makes sense.  It takes a lot of effort to transform a print book into a blind-accessible copy, and the market for such items is both very, very small, and not particularly wealthy.  If they couldn’t make copies for free, and provide those copies through volunteer work, blind people would have an extremely tiny reading library.  Almost none of those books would be romance novels.  Blind people would either have to choose between not reading, a truly horrible option, or looking for books they could read in violation of copyright.  In my mind, Congress’s decision to allow these people an option to read widely, without violating copyright law, engenders respect for an author’s copyright and for the rule of law generally.  Good laws don’t make people want to break them.

But it only makes sense if you see copyright as an author’s bargain with society, not as a matter of an author’s inalienable right.

3 thoughts on “Copyright and the blind reader

  1. I had no idea about this (and am now curious whether it’s the same here in Canada). So, if providing reading material for the visually impaired is considered both a good deed as well as not losing a whole lot of potential royalties due to the tinyness of the market – does that mean that hearing-impaired people are provided with free movie/television material that has been modified to suit their needs, also?

  2. This is a little different, but the visually impared subject made me think of it. I often get books from the library (and many of them are in large print). Does the library just pay the regular amount for the book? It is like bookshare, in a way… do authors resent the library for giving readers an opportunity to read for free?

  3. Maya, I have no idea what Canadian law is on the subject! Disability law in the US is very complicated, and I just happened to know this particular piece of the puzzle.

    Leigh, I don’t think that the large-print books from the library are the same thing as books available through bookshare.

    I’m pretty sure you can order large-print versions of many books, and I’m also pretty sure that the large-print programs would not be covered by the relevant law for blind-accessibility, which limits the availability of the programs for the visually impaired to those who can demonstrate a disability.

    As to whether authors resent the library for giving readers an opportunity to read for free … I would say it depends on the individual author! I’ve seen some authors express dismay about the library–or about ARCs being sold on eBay–or about paperbackswap–or about books being sold on for one cent a day after the book’s release. All of these things are legally allowed under copyright law (yes, even the ARCs that are sold on eBay!), and yes, I have heard authors grumble about all of these in some measure. But I have also heard authors (myself included!) who do *not* grumble about any of them.

    Personally, I am happy to get readers–however I get them! I know that when finances were tight for me, I read a lot of authors through borrowing from friends/buying used/library use. Now that I have more money, I am happy to support the authors I read for free by purchasing their books. With a few notable exceptions, if I hadn’t had free access, I would not have bought the books, period–I just didn’t have the money. I suspect the same is true for many people, and I would rather have 10,000 people read my book for free, with the potential that 10% of them might become fans, than have 10 people read it and pay.

    It’s possible I might feel differently if/when I get a fanbase that is larger than just Mom and Dad, and have a greater financial stake, but I’d like to hope that won’t change. I believe in a strong open and free component to all content.

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