by Peter M. Scialli, Ph.D.
From the Editor: Dr. Scialli has contributed several articles to this publication in recent years. In addition to his other activities, he now devotes a good bit of his time to the nonprofit research and development company, Benetech, where his title is Associate, Technical Projects.
As blind people we can almost universally agree that one of the challenges we face most often is access to print. If you are a blind student, you know all too well the frustration of trying to find out about textbook titles in advance only to discover that the book is either not available in an alternate format or available only in an obsolete edition. As someone interested in keeping up with current literature, you may find that you must wait a year or more for a popular book to become available in Braille or on tape.
In recent years technology has helped. Many of us have personal computers and scanning software. Others have reading machines. These things bring us much closer to print access, but they are sometimes complicated and always time-consuming. Scanning a book can take up to several hours. Converting a scanned book to embossed Braille is both slow and expensive. Any way you slice it, we frequently find ourselves beholden to others to provide alternative texts or seriously lagging behind our sighted colleagues as we plod through the extra steps necessary for obtaining that which we must read.
Suppose there were a way instantly to find and obtain virtually any book you want or need to read. We’d all love to see the day when we could independently browse, select, and read just about anything. Well that day is at hand. Thanks in large measure to the efforts of the organized blind, in 1996 the United States Congress passed an amendment to the copyright law which paved the way for unprecedented access to printed material. Section 17 U.S.C. § 121 of the copyright law states in part “...it is not an infringement of copyright for an authorized entity to reproduce or to distribute copies... of a previously published, nondramatic literary work if such copies... are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities.” Two key phrases in this law need to be pointed out: The first is “authorized entity,” and the second is “specialized format.”
Specialized formats for the blind or disabled include the traditional alternatives of Braille or audio. People with some familiarity with computers will recognize that digital texts such as digital Braille and the new DAISY talking book standard are also alternative formats. These types of books can be downloaded over the Internet, making distribution fast and easy.
By “authorized entity,” the law refers to a nonprofit institution that exists primarily to serve those who are blind or have other print-related disabilities. The two American organizations that immediately spring to mind as providing books and other reading material in alternative formats are the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D). Both of these have been in existence for many years, and both have done excellent work toward bringing the printed word to blind people.
Another nonprofit organization newer to the landscape is Benetech, the nonprofit successor to Arkenstone. Arkenstone, started in 1989 by Jim Fruchterman, was the first company to provide affordable reading technology to those with print-related disabilities. In 2000 the Arkenstone name and manufacturing operations were sold to Freedom Scientific, Inc. The nonprofit research and development company Benetech—not part of the Freedom Scientific acquisition—carried on the development of worthy technology projects serving humanity.
At about the same time that Benetech was created, the Napster service, with which people possessing computers could share music files over a vast network of individual music collectors, was gaining a great deal of attention in the press. The reason that Napster had and continues to have legal problems is that sharing copyrighted audio programs is against the copyright laws. Still the concepts and technology at the root of Napster are both new and exciting, especially when applied to access to print.
Jim Fruchterman, now President of Benetech, conceived of a service which could legally take advantage of current computer and Internet technology and which could serve those with print-related disabilities. Having run Arkenstone for twelve years, Mr. Fruchterman reasoned that among the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 print-disabled people who are using computer technology to scan and convert books from print into electronic formats, there must be a great deal of duplication. A book, the newest John Grisham novel for example, costs something like three hours of time to scan into an electronic file. It is likely that hundreds or even thousands of people regularly repeat this scanning process. For even one popular book this represents an enormous amount of repeated and potentially wasted effort. Wouldn’t it be great to have a book scanned as a computer file by a single person rapidly available to anyone with a print disability who might need it anywhere in the United States? Happily, thanks to Benetech, the answer to this question is not just rhetorical, it is reality.
Bookshare.org, expected to begin operation in late 2001, is an online file-sharing community in which members will be able to share in the growing wealth of books in electronic formats. It is important to emphasize that the service provided by Bookshare.org will be perfectly legal. Unlike Napster, which does not have a special copyright exemption, Bookshare.org falls squarely within both the letter and intent of the law.
Again differing from Napster, which depends on its members’ being connected to their computer systems more or less continuously to make files available, Bookshare.org will house its book collection in a central location, enabling access to all of its books around the clock. At launch in the neighborhood of 20,000 books are expected to be in the collection in a wide variety of categories: fiction, nonfiction, classic works, and more. The collection is expected to grow rapidly during the first year of operation and beyond.
The enthusiasm for Bookshare.org is based on the essential fact that it is a rapidly growing community of print-disabled people who are making a difference for themselves. As blind people we are frequently put in the position of having others decide what services are to be provided and how they are to be administered. Bookshare.org’s community approach is that we who are members will have the primary role in making it grow and having it meet our needs.
Benetech has been busily collecting scanned books through most of 2001. Blind people, many of whom have large collections of books which they themselves have converted to electronic texts, have contributed thousands of titles to give this project its impressive start. It will no doubt expand very quickly in its first years of operation as more and more people realize the utility and sheer joy in being able to gain full access instantly to even brand new titles.
In addition to being in control of expanding Bookshare.org’s content, the blind and other print-disabled members of the community will be able to take a proactive role in improving and validating the content contained therein. Volunteers will have many opportunities to participate not only in the contribution of scanned materials but in making certain the content is diverse and of excellent quality. People interested in Bookshare.org should already be saving any books they have scanned, whether for school, for work, or from the public library.
The approach of having the community members of Bookshare.org play a central role in providing content and helping in other ways will assist enormously in keeping membership costs low. While Benetech is a not-for-profit organization, substantial costs are associated with providing a high quality Internet service of this scope and magnitude. Those who volunteer to help with Bookshare.org’s growth will be able to reduce membership fees for everyone significantly while earning direct membership credits for themselves.
Bookshare.org has received a great deal of positive response even before opening its doors to the print-disabled public. The Bookshare.org team has been working closely with the Association of American Publishers, the national organization to which commercial publishing companies belong in order to promote their interests. While a service such as Napster was deemed by the music recording industry to be a threat, permitting the public to share copyrighted music without paying for it, the publishers are taking an active role in working with Bookshare.org. Publishers have been under pressure for some time to increase the accessibility of their books to comply with equal-access legislation. Bookshare.org, developed with careful consideration of the publishers’ needs, fosters accessibility. It ultimately removes the burden of providing equal access at the direct expense of the publishers while simultaneously putting control of the service where it belongs, with those who use it.
Well known disability organizations are also involved in Bookshare.org’s development. An advisory committee helps to oversee the system’s development. This committee includes notable names such as Curtis Chong, Director of the National Federation of the Blind’s Technology Department. Mr. Chong has been important in helping to be sure that Bookshare.org will meet the needs of blind people everywhere. The American Printing House for the Blind and American Foundation for the Blind have also been extremely positive and helpful.
How will it work? Like the more traditional services, NLS and RFB&D, Bookshare.org requires that a person who wants to access copyrighted books provide certification of eligibility to receive materials in alternate formats. This is an integral step in complying with the copyright laws that make Bookshare.org possible. Once authorized, an individual blind person in the United States with access to the Internet will be able to log onto the Bookshare.org Website and search the collection in several ways: by title, author, or category. There will even be a section of new submissions to the service, where the latest best sellers would be found.
Another important part of complying with the law is the delivery of material in so-called special formats for the blind and disabled. Bookshare.org will thus offer its holdings in two of these formats. The first is electronic Grade II Braille, also known as BRF, which may be instantly read with a dynamic Braille display or notetaker or prepared for use in virtually any electronic text-reading device. They may also be readily embossed to hard-copy Braille.
The other format in which files will be available from Bookshare.org is the NISO/DAISY digital talking book standard. At this point DAISY files are not familiar to everyone. However, this file type has been adopted as a new worldwide standard in which digital talking books may be delivered to provide a reading experience much more similar to that of a sighted person with a physical printed book. DAISY books permit precise and elaborate indexing of books so that it is possible to move quickly between pages or chapters within a book. Bookshare.org DAISY files will be text-only and can be spoken in a synthesized voice. As the DAISY standard takes hold, blind people will have independent access to books and information like never before. Imagine being able to look up a term in the index of a book and instantly find yourself at the referenced page while your sighted classmates are still thumbing through paper pages!
Finally, the books obtained from Bookshare.org will include Digital Rights Management (DRM). Bookshare.org is a new concept, not only to the blind of the world, but to the publishing community. There is justifiable concern that abuse of digitally available material could occur. To address this issue, Bookshare.org’s materials will include hidden information about who downloaded them. This will discourage their use or distribution in an unauthorized manner. It will also be able to find Bookshare.org books which may be located on unauthorized or unintended sites on the Internet.
Bookshare.org is well under way. Because the active involvement of the community of members and users is key to the growth of the number of books, it is vital that we encourage everyone we know to learn about and check out the Bookshare.org Website at <http://www.bookshare.org>. Not only can blind people answer the call to grow this service, but community groups and school organizations can take on roles in Bookshare.org that are sure to have real meaning.
As access is broadened, even to the point of Talking Book players that can seamlessly connect to Bookshare.org, teachers, employers, parents, students, and the community of publishers will see that for blind people full access is a matter of course. A major barrier to equal participation in society, lack of ability to read virtually any book in a timely manner, will have been lifted.
To obtain more information about Bookshare.org, visit the Website at <http://www.bookshare.org>. You can also get answers to specific questions by sending an e-mail to <firstname.lastname@example.org>. For more information about the Benetech Initiative and its mission to provide technology serving humanity visit its Website at <http://www.benetech.org>.