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Why You Should Care About Digital Rights Management

This document is archived as it is no longer timely and may be only of historical value.

For information on current issues see the Public Policy and Policy Research section.


by Alan Dinsmore

AccessWorld™ Extra

Volume 3, Number 3
June 2003

This material is copyright 2003 American Foundation for the Blind and may not be reprinted or reproduced electronically without permission. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.


News stories about digital music file piracy, electronic robots rifling through computer hard drives, and students charged with copyright violations abound in reporting on the world of digital information. Does any of this affect you? We believe it does, especially in access to electronic books.

What is Digital Rights Management?

Digital rights management (DRM) is the unexciting term for a very interesting debate that will affect our access to e-books. It refers to the effort to balance the interests of copyright holders and consumers of digital content. Interestingly, the number of e- books published in one year is about the same as the average number of print books published per year in the Elizabethan era. Those who own the copyrights for vast numbers of published works, including software, are very concerned that the digitization of the material, which can offer rapid access to users who are blind or visually impaired, makes digital piracy possible. Congress responded in 1998 with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which made it unlawful to try to disable or otherwise tamper with security measures that protect digital content. The entertainment industry and other large owners of copyright-protected content have been pushing Congress to strengthen digital protections for copyright holders. Congress has not yet acted on the proposals. So, the digital protection lobby, led by the entertainment sector, has moved its advocacy to the states. The states are being pressured to enact laws to protect the rights of the owners of digital content.

How Real Is the Threat?

The increasing use and complexity of technological controls to protect content in digital form against piracy and improper use may interfere with the specialized technologies needed to access information by individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Popular electronic book reading technologies now include security levels that prevent screen readers from accessing the material. In fact, in our research for comments provided to the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, AFB found that over 50% of the titles authorized for digital sale were "locked up," and, therefore, not available via common screen reader interface.

The denial of access through screen readers is further compounded by ambiguity about the legality of efforts by screen reader developers to work around these barriers to provide access to readers of e-books who are blind or visually impaired. The DMCA appears to create the presumption that designing software to get around digital security is unlawful. However, the situation is ambiguous because it may be legally acceptable to provide a work- around to enable access to digital material for an authorized user who is blind or visually impaired. This may require an analysis of the underlying structure of hardware and software, sometimes called "reverse engineering," to provide access. But, the DMCA provides highly restrictive exemptions for such activities and, increasingly, contract clauses forbidding reverse engineering are included in technology licenses. Further efforts are underway to strengthen so-called digital protections at the state and federal levels.

While this area of law is a bit complex, the voices of consumers, especially those with disabilities, must be heard. It is urgent that access technology developers begin to closely examine the nature of these restrictions as they apply to the development of technology to access and appropriately manipulate any user-level controls; the deconstruction of protected material in order to re-purpose the content into accessible formats; and the manner in which media can be identified to consumers so that they may know that some uses may be restricted.

AFB will be providing updates on developments, but requires your assistance in assessing the nature of the threat. Those desiring a more comprehensive treatment of copyright issues may wish to read AFB's comments advocating exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act at www.afb.org/copyright.asp.

Up-to-the-minute information on digital rights state laws may be monitored through www.publicknowledge.org.

An excellent resource is "The Soundproof Book: Exploration of Rights Conflict and Access to Commercial E-Books for People with Disabilities," by George Kerscher and Jim Fruchterman, at www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue7_6/kerscher/index.html.

And, we would very much like to hear from assistive technology developers and consumers who are interested in this issue or who have experienced difficulties in accessing electronic materials. Please contact: Paul Schroeder pws@afb.net or Alan Dinsmore adinsmore@afb.net.

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