Sunday, August 28, 2016

While the government dithers, millions can't read properly

In Hitler's Germany and Mao Zedong's China they burnt books. Here, we prevent people from reading them.

Government inaction and fear of doing anything to weaken copyright have denied millions of Australians with print disabilities ranging from blindness to dyslexia the kind of access to books the rest of us take for granted.

In the United States there's BookShare, a web platform that allows visually impaired Americans to listen to high-quality text-to-speech versions of books, to read digital braille and enlarged-font versions and to create physical braille and large-font books directly from the website. So far it has 460,000 titles. Here, our copyright rules restrict us to 193,000.

The best format for making audio copies of books is called DAISY. It allows readers to search, insert bookmarks and regulate speed. But here, if disability organisations try to convert a book into DAISY format the Copyright Act requires them to check first that there are no commercial audio or large-print versions already available. If there are, even if they are not searchable or useful like DAISY, its no dice. If there's a commercial large-print version available and the reader needs a larger-print version, it can't be done. If there's written music or graphs or diagrams in the book it's also no dice for those parts of the book. That's because our Copyright Act is painfully prescriptive, using rigid "blackletter law" rather than general principles such as the US "fair use" provisions. There, if it's fair, it's allowed. Here, it's only allowed if parliament specifically enactis a provision. It can take decades. In the US, home taping of TV programs was recognised fair use in 1984. Here it took until 2006.

Our system of specific copyright exceptions is also why a six-year-old girl might be entitled to save some music to a disk for homework, but it would be illegal for her parent to do it for her. Bizarrely, our blackletter law requires organisations making accessible copies for the disabled to check for commercial alternatives before every single download of the copies they make.

Educational libraries are similarly handcuffed. They are allowed to scan books for conversion into accessible formats, but only if they destroy the scans after each use, even if they know they'll need them for other students.

Last year after decades of lobbying, the government released a draft amendment that would have fixed most of the problems. Nine months on it still hasn't been before the parliament. Minister Mitch Fifield says he'll do it "at the earliest opportunity". He should. But it won't fix the broader problem.

Our current approach means we need to keep amending the Act every time there's a new technological development or use that ought to be permitted.It would be far, far simpler to adopt US-style fair use provisions, as the Productivity Commission recommended earlier this year in a draft report. It'll deliver its final report in September.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald