Friday, September 25, 2009

A Reading Miracle. It May Be Legal, but Don't Ask the Grox

Over the summer I witnessed a miracle.

Do you know which book was the first you ever read on your own? I'm not sure about mine, but my younger brother's first was definitely Go, Dog. Go! by P. D. Eastman. He was under 4 years old when he start reading it. If you haven't read it, Go, Dog. Go! is a 62 page multiculturalist masterpiece with engaging illustrations first published in 1961. Here is the complete text of pages 3-9:
Dog. Big dog. Little dog. Big dogs and little dogs. Black dogs and white dogs. "Hello!" "Hello!" "Do you like my hat?" "I do not." "Good-by!" Good-by!"
This summer, I witnessed my own son "reading" his first "book". It wasn't written by a single author and it wasn't published by Random House. It wasn't printed on paper, and it wasn't even what we might call an "e-book". It was a website devoted to the game "Spore" that currently consists of 3,819 articles written by website users, and over the course of the summer, my son read a majority of those articles. Here is a sample passage:
The Grox are a sentient species of cyborg aliens generally considered to be the most evil and hostile in the galaxy. They are most notable for their evil and hostility, but are also notable for their asymmetric, weak impish appearance.
Needless to say, my son's outlook on the world and his ability to explore it have dramatically changed.

This miracle was made possible by text-to-speech (TTS) software. You see, my son has a disability that makes normal reading excruciatingly difficult for him. Through a great deal of work, and some considerable courage, he is now able to read, with great effort, printed sentences and short paragraphs on his own. But as a bright 11-year-old sixth grader, books like Go, Dog. Go! and others that pose little reading difficulty hold little interest for him, and so he won't read the words in printed books on his own. He likes computers, though. At the beginning of the summer, I showed my son how to activate the text-to-speech features of his Mac. Mac OS X has text-to-speech capabilities built in, and because Mac applications are built using standardized text display objects with hooks that allow access to the system TTS services, there's a uniform, cross-application way to have text spoken. (In contrast, TTS on Windows Vista is almost useless!) Similarly, Wiki-based websites present content in uniform ways that made it easy for my son to interact with text.

I was amazed by the way my son began to devour the content that interested him. Every day after coming home from camp, he would spend hours staring at the screen and listening to the Mac's robotic voice speak the text to him. Then he would watch some YouTube videos and play some Spore. I realized that TTS had given my son a way to fully satisfy, for the first time in his life, his hunger for information.

People who see miracles tend to develop intense beliefs. I am no exception. I am no longer an objective observer of digital copyright issues when they relate to access by the reading disabled. When I want to feel some anger (it helps me run faster) I think about people and institutions who try to use copyright law in ways that prevent people like my son from being able to read what they want to read.

After having moral imperatives made clear to me, I've spent some time learning about the relevant technology and laws, and I find that these include many of the issues I've been working on and learning about. For example, last year, before I started paying attention, Amazon faced criticism from authors and publishers who argued that text to speech on the Kindle DX constituted a performance that Amazon did not have the rights to deliver. Could publishers similarly enjoin Apple from allowing my son to use its TTS on copyrighted material? With my new perspective, I cannot talk about this without fuming at the blatant immorality of some of the arguments being made.

When Amazon relented, Random House (publisher of Go, Dog. Go!) asked Amazon to turn off text-to-speech on the Kindle DX for its books, which sparked considerable controversy. This led the National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind to file a discrimination lawsuit against Arizona State University which intended to test the Kindle DX as a means of distributing textbooks. The basis of this lawsuit is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which bars discrimination against people with disabilities in any public accommodation, a term which would include libraries and bookstores. The ADA has been used to force e-commerce websites to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the laws on accommodating disabled users have not kept up with changing technology. In 1996, the "Chafee Amendment" changed US Copyright law to allow "authorized entities" to make reproductions of previously published nondramatic literary works for the purpose of producing formats used exclusively by the disabled. Unfortunately, the possibility that all the worlds books might someday be digitized and thus made available to those with reading disabilities was remote at that time. As a result the ambiguity of the amendment's language is enough that the American Association of Publishers was able to argue that the Chafee Amendment could not be used by libraries to help them comply with the ADA. Luckily, organizations like Benetech and its BookShare website are working with publishers to get around this sort of conflict. I hope my son will be able to read the books he needs to read through BookShare.

It's my considered opinion that the Google Book Search digitization project has created the potential for a direct collision between book publishers and the ADA, and that this prospect has played a significant role in shaping the controversial aggrement to settle the publishers' and authors' lawsuit against Google, but that's a topic for another article.

Now that I know a bit more about the potential legal obstacles to my son's reading, I'm wondering what I should be doing to make sure those obstacles disappear. I'm still hoping to see more reading miracles. "Good-by!"
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