Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1997, Vol. 16 No. 1


New Copyright Law Big Breakthrough For The Blind

Ever since books began to be recorded or Brailled for the blind, copyright laws have been a problem. Copyright clearance had to be sought on a book-by-book and item-by-item basis for anything to be reproduced for the blind. This was an expensive and time-consuming procedure. Sometimes the publisher had to be asked for clearance, sometimes the author, and sometimes copyright power was jointly shared. Books that contained stories or chapters by different authors complicated and delayed the process so much that often such books were never recorded or Brailled. In some instances, even after delays of months and an outlay of a great deal of money and time, permission was denied altogether.

The development of digital formats and the electronic production and distribution of reading matter over the Internet added a new dimension to an already complicated and cumbersome situation.

Shortly after taking office, the Clinton Administration began to explore changes in the copyright law as part of broader considerations involving the Internet. Unfortunately the legislative bill which was introduced provided for copyright changes that would have made the situation even worse for the blind. However, feeling that this climate of investigation and reexamination of the copyright law offered not only a threat but also an opportunity, the NFB and others in the blindness field took action.

On January 25, 1996, the NFB hosted a meeting with the president and top officials of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), representatives from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS), and, of course, representatives from the NFB to discuss copyright clearance for reading matter for the blind. After many hours of discussion and negotiation complete agreement was reached on language to propose as an amendment to the copyright bill then before Congress. The proposal was simple: No longer would copyright clearance be required for nondramatic literary works reproduced by certain entities in specialized formats for the blind and other persons with disabilities.

On February 8, 1996, several major agencies for the blind testified at a Congressional hearing in support of the proposal which came out of this meeting between AAP, NLS, and the NFB. Dr. Tuck Tinsley, head of the American Printing House for the Blind, was there to testify. He said in part:

"The substitute language for the new section 108A proposed by the National Federation of the Blind, the Association of American Publishers, and the Library of Congress will greatly assist with the provision of educational materials to blind students at the same time the materials are available to their sighted peers. This amendment will provide long-overdue enrichment to the lives of blind students. It is time to put an end to the unintended effect that copyright has of censoring blind students' access to current ideas, information, and educational resources. On behalf of all of the legally blind student population of our country, the American Printing House for the Blind salutes the Association of American Publishers for going to the National Federation of the Blind and working toward language for section 108A which is beneficial to all."

To make a long story a little shorter, Congress passed the copyright amendments and the amended bill was eventually signed into law by President Clinton on September 16, 1996.

This change in the Copyright Act has great potential for increasing the number of books that are available to the blind. Currently, of the 40,000 books that are published annually, only about 5 percent are made available to the blind. The time and money that is saved now that copyright permission is no longer required can be directed toward getting more books reproduced in a timely fashion. However, even a law this simple needs some explanation. The following article, reprinted from the February, 1997, Braille Monitor, provides an explanation and answers to common questions about the law which have been raised with the NFB. The author, James Gashel, is the NFB's Director of Governmental Affairs.


by James Gashel

As Braille Monitor readers are well aware, the National Federation of the Blind played a pivotal role in securing passage of amendments to the Copyright Act during the second session of the 104th Congress. The changes which are now in the law resulted from negotiations between Federation leaders and responsible officials of the Association of American Publishers.

The amendments to the Copyright Act were included in a bill to fund operations of the Congress for fiscal year 1997. The bill is known as the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act. Although the primary purpose of the bill is to approve spending for operating the House of Representatives and the Senate through September 30, 1997, funds are also included for the Library of Congress and other activities that fall within the legislative branch.

As the Constitution specifies, all bills to appropriate money must originate in the House of Representatives and then be considered by the Senate. In the instance of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, the House did not include the copyright amendments in its original version, but the Senate added the provisions as section 316. The House then agreed to this change. Unlike the spending provisions of the bill, which generally expire at the end of September, 1997, the copyright amendments are permanent.

In the months since enactment of the new law many questions have come to the Federation about what to do to comply. In the first place, there is a common misconception that anyone is now permitted to reproduce any printed material for blind people. Technically and actually, this is not quite so. Only authorized entities are now allowed to convert printed matter into Braille and other formats without permission.

Authorized entities include both public and private nonprofit agencies or organizations such as schools, libraries, training programs, book transcribing groups, and the like. With a definition like this, any individual who wants to have material reproduced in Braille or another special format ought to be able to find a qualified group to do the work or to sponsor having it done.

Another question has to do with the effective date of the new provisions. The law which includes the copyright amendment was signed by President Clinton on September 16, 1996. The changes to the Copyright Act were immediately effective from that date forward. Some people have assumed that material which was published prior to September 16, 1996, cannot be reproduced without permission. This is not the case. The exemption for reproduction and distribution of material in specialized formats applies to any copyrighted work, no matter when the work was published and copyrighted in the United States. The exemption would not apply, of course, if the reproduction or distribution of the work in a specialized format occurred prior to September 16, 1996; but this is a different matter altogether. For all practical purposes, any nondramatic literary work that exists (no matter when published) may now be reproduced.

So the question then comes: what about a copyright notice in view of the fact that permission to reproduce printed matter is no longer required? The answer is found in the law itself. The requirements_there are only two_are quite clear-cut:

(1) All works which are reproduced or distributed in a specialized format, including Braille, audio, or digital reproductions, must contain a statement that "Further reproduction or distribution in a format other than a specialized format is prohibited." According to the Library of Congress, this notice must appear both in print (for example, on the label of a recorded disk or cassette) and in the audio, Braille, or digital text itself.

(2) Every reproduction must provide identifying copyright information by saying: "Copyright, (holder's name), (date)."

It is just that simple. The permission language which used to appear is no longer appropriate because permission is not required, to which one might observe that most laws result in complicating our lives even when they do so in the name of providing us with opportunities. Here, however, is an example of a law which has had exactly the opposite effect. The required statements are clear, short, and to the point. That's the way it is, and there is really nothing else to say.