Most of us take vision for granted, but about 21.5 million adult Americans have trouble seeing, even with glasses or other vision aids. The leading causes of blindness or low vision in the US are age-related eye diseases, and many of the treatments are in fairly early stages of research and development. It's not easy to replicate the functions of a retina, but here are just a few projects that are working on ways to restore vision with some interesting technologies.
Visually impaired folks have access to more technology than ever before. Despite various setbacks that prevent some ingenious innovations, plenty of developers are still working on hardware and software tools to help out people with disabilities. Here are just a few examples of some interesting projects for the blind.
Last week, we wrote about how the US was holding up a treaty to help visually impaired people be able to access more works, in large part because publishers are somehow offended that the public might want to take back some of their fair use rights (which the publishers unfortunately claim is "taking away" something from them). As more and more details come out, it's become clear that while most of the countries involved in the negotiations really want this treaty -- which has been in discussion for nearly 20 years -- to be put in place, there are two major stumbling blocks: the EU Commission and the US. Not surprisingly, these were the two biggest supporters of ACTA as well. As with ACTA, the EU Parliament is at odds with the EU Commission on this and is in support of a treaty, but the Commission is trying to put all sorts of "unreasonable restrictions" on the agreement, and the US is still fighting against the idea of calling this a "treaty."
This is really kicking the can down the road -- in this case, past Obama's first term in office. After four years, Obama can't overcome opposition from a handful of mostly foreign owned publishers to support a treaty for blind people. In many respects, this is a money in politics story. If blind people were financing his campaign, they would have had a treaty a year ago. The Obama administration wants the decision on the treaty delayed until the election so it will not interfere with its campaign fundraising from publishers, and so it will not suffer bad publicity for opposing the treaty, before the election.
The whole thing is pretty shameful, and yet another display of how money corrupts politics... and how copyright helps in that process.
Digital cameras are getting better all the time, but our natural vision only seems to degrade over time. (Almost everyone over forty years old will suffer from some kind of presbyopia.) There may be technological solutions to improving human vision, but so far, projects like Google Glass are more about augmenting vision, not necessarily improving a user's sight. Here are just a few interesting projects working on useful eye prosthetic devices.
Language matters. In debates we see over copyright and other issues, it's often amazing how the industry has really twisted the language to their advantage. A few years ago, Bill Patry wrote an excellent book all about how the entertainment industry inserted its preferred language into all of the debates over copyright, such that they can claim the moral high ground on an issue that is really a business model/economic one for the most part. Of course, those of us pushing for fixing problems in copyright law unfortunately sometimes fall into the same traps. Just recently, for example, we talked about how we should stop calling things "orphan works," and more accurately describe them as they are: hostage works.
I was thinking about this while watching Jamie Love's recent interview with Alan Adler, the VP of Legal & Gov't Affairs for the Association of American Publishers. We already discussed the substance of the discussion around various international agreements for "limitations and exceptions" to copyright law. "Limitations and exceptions" has been standard terminology for things like fair use, fair dealing and other "valves" to stop copyright from being completely oppressive. However, as I watched Adler, some of his comments around those things bothered me. You can watch it below, but I'll call out a few quotes:
"For publishers, they really don't have a business, unless they own intellectual property assets, that they're able to use, control and exploit in the marketplace. So the threat of piracy and the threat of restrictions, limitations, exception to their rights as copyright owners is always a concern to them, because it effects the way they do business. The WIPO is now looking at creating international instruments addressing a number of different things -- but all of them have one thing in common: they would cut back on the rights of publishers as copyright owners by introducing new limitations and exception to those rights..."
"Interestingly, our interest and concern about whether it's a treaty or some other form of international agreement, probably would not have been much of a problem if we were only working on the issue of print disabilities. But with the effort to develop supposed proposed treaties on limitations and exceptions for educational uses and also a separate effort moving parallel to this, to develop a similar treaty on limitations and exceptions for uses by libraries and archives. The problem we have in the area of print disabilities is we really don't want to establish a precedent of developing a series of treaties that specifically focus on trying to set forth minimal limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright owners. Up until this proposal with respect to print disabilities, generally the treaties and other international agreements that have been devised by the WIPO have been to establish the minimal rights of copyright owners -- not the limitations and exceptions to those rights. And the notion that now, because of the concerns of developing countries and some of the agreements that have been made to pursue an agenda of issues that are of concern to developing countries, we're now beginning to focus on limitations and exceptions."
I have to admit that it's somewhat refreshing that Adler comes right out and says this honestly: that the companies he represents are worried that it might change their business models, rather than making any kind of unsupported moral claims or suggestions that these "limitations and exceptions" are somehow going to destroy content.
That said -- and this comes through strongly in that second quote above -- it's a bit disturbing the way he seems to think that the only thing at issue is the rights of copyright holders, and the way he only describes limitations and exceptions in terms of how they take away rights from the copyright holders. That's incredibly misleading. These "limitations and exceptions" with things like fair use are actually rights of the public. Copyright has always been a restriction on the rights of the public. We can argue over whether or not it's a reasonable or appropriate restriction, but that's what it is. When we flip the language and call things like fair use -- which give back some rights to the public -- "limitations and exceptions," we're unfortunately playing into the language framing of copyright holders, and allowing Adler to say things like he does above and have them sound marginally reasonable.
Yet, if you changed around what he said to make it more accurate by noting that these limitations and exceptions are really about increasing the rights of the public, you begin to realize that what he's saying is pretty crazy:
"For publishers, they really don't have a business, unless they hold government-granted monopoly privileges, that they're able to use, control and exploit in the marketplace. So the threat of infringement and the threat of the public regaining some of their own rights is always a concern to them, because it effects the way they do business. The WIPO is now looking at creating international instruments addressing a number of different things -- but all of them have one thing in common: they would increase the rights of the public by restoring their ability to make use of those works...
"Interestingly, our interest and concern about whether it's a treaty or some other form of international agreement, probably would not have been much of a problem if we were only working on the issue of print disabilities. But with the effort to develop supposed proposed treaties on the public's rights to use works for educational uses and also a separate effort moving parallel to this, to develop a similar treaty on the public's right for uses by libraries and archives. The problem we have in the area of print disabilities is we really don't want to establish a precedent of developing a series of treaties that specifically focus on trying to set forth expanded rights for the public. Up until this proposal with respect to print disabilities, generally the treaties and other international agreements that have been devised by the WIPO have been to take away and limit the rights of the public -- not to expand and clarify those rights. And the notion that now, because of the concerns of developing countries and some of the agreements that have been made to pursue an agenda of issues that are of concern to developing countries, we're now beginning to focus on the rights of the public."
That is a lot more accurate version of what he's saying when you realize the nature of what's really being discussed. So even as we're happy that at least there's been a lot more talk of "limitations & exceptions" (even by the USTR in the TPP negotiations), it seems wrong to cede the framing of the discussion to special interest industry folks. These aren't "limitations and exceptions," they're the public's right to access, to create and to express themselves.
We've been talking about ACTA and TPP and the ridiculous levels of secrecy around them for a while now, but the US's overly secret policies are showing up in other treaty issues as well. For years, we've been talking about negotiations at WIPO to create a treaty that would provide specific exceptions to copyright law to help the blind get access to works in formats they could read (basically, it would make it so the blind could more easily import braille and other versions that are readable for the visually impaired from other countries). This issue has been out there forever. And while we always hear how important it is that US negotiators rush to get deals like ACTA and TPP done, they've dragged their heels on the treaty for the blind for ages. At the urging of copyright holders, the Obama administration came out against such a treaty a few years ago. And the EU Commission has been against such a treaty for a while as well, claiming that it's just too hard to put in place. Yeah, rush through things like ACTA and TPP... but helping the blind get access to works? That's just too hard...
Over at WIPO, the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) conference is ongoing, and one of the agenda items is this treaty for the blind. One of the key points that have held up negotiations is whether or not this should really be a "treaty." As I understand it, copyright maximalists are scared silly of creating an actual treaty that is focused on "exceptions and limitations," because that might make people realize that exceptions and limitations are a thing they can create whole treaties around... and thus we'd start seeing a lot more of that.
And, in fact, on the agenda at SCCR are two other potential agreements (which are much newer) discussing the possibility of exceptions and limitations in two other areas: education and libraries. As this video, shot by Jamie Love at KEI of Alan Adler, the VP of the Association of American Publishers, shows, he's against these kinds of treaties because the publishers believe that exceptions and limitations are an attack on their rights, and they don't want to support that kind of thing.
What's really disturbing, however, is that despite years and years of work on a treaty for exceptions for the blind, and despite the public's reaction to secret negotiations in the likes of SOPA, ACTA and TPP... the US so far has been keeping the text of what's being discussed a secret. Jamie Love has been explaining that this is creating huge problems at SCCR, because very few people know exactly what's in the text, and they feel that they're wasting time. There had been some hope that a basic agreement might finally have been worked out at this session. But, instead, while lobbyists have been briefed, actual advocates for the blind and the public have been left out in the cold and don't even know what's in the latest draft.
There's no way to describe this other than absolutely shameful on the part of the US government and the Obama administration. It's dragged its feet for years on helping the blind over this issue, even while trying to rush through all sorts of copyright treaties that favor Hollywood. And now, despite all of that, having the US (once again) keep the text a secret... it's just shameful.
A few years ago, Oscar Pistorius was denied participation in the Olympics because his prosthetic carbon-fiber legs were deemed an unfair advantage. As technology improves, it's possible to design artificial body parts that could be superior to the natural ones. So it may only be a matter of time before everyone is wearing gear that improves their natural abilities. Here are just a few examples of projects that could develop better senses.
We've pointed out the hypocrisy of the industry folks who are eagerly supporting the expansion of copyright via ACTA, but who are against a few very limited simple exceptions to copyright for the blind in a new WIPO treaty. However, in defending this position, a European Union Commissioner, Michel Barnier, has explained to the European Blind Union, that doing a treaty is just too hard, and it's much easier to just do a much more limited "joint recommendation," which would be a lot weaker. As KEI's Jamie Love points out in the link above, it seems odd here that the EU is admitting that it's too difficult to bother creating new treaties around copyright... at the same time it's heavily involved in ACTA and a number of other copyright treaties. Apparently it's only worth undertaking that kind of effort when it ratchets copyright up in favor of industry. The blind? Eh. Not worth the effort...
If you go through a timeline of the history of copyright law over the last two centuries, one thing is clear: it has only moved in one direction, and one direction only. That is that it has repeatedly been changed to take away more and more consumer rights and to ratchet up copyright law to greater and greater levels. The only exception I can think of was the US government's decision to make all federal government documents public domain, rather than granting them copyright. While important, this was still a minor move. Update: Thanks to one of the copyright scholars in the audience for pointing out a few other cases of pushback against copyright, including the 2002 TEACH Act which included some small exceptions for distance learning, as well as a variety of countries rolling back perpetual copyright.
For the past few years, there has been one other push, happening via WIPO, that would push back just slightly on copyright law when it came to books for the blind (in Braille). Basically, this treaty makes it easier to get books in Braille for the blind. Who could possibly be against such a thing? Well, of course the RIAA and the MPAA, who fought against it claiming that a treaty like this would "begin to dismantle the existing global treaty structure of copyright law, through the adoption of an international instrument at odds with existing, longstanding and well-settled norms."
This was especially hilarious, considering that it came from two organizations that remain massively strong supporters of ACTA -- which has done a tremendous amount of damage to the "existing global treaty structure of copyright law," by going around it entirely, and created an agreement that was very much "at odds with existing, longstanding and well-settled norms."
However, it appears that the WIPO treaty is actually getting some traction (even if just a little bit), and MEP Christian Engstrom is noting that the legal affairs committee JURI in the European Parliament has unanimously adopted an amendment that supports the treaty. It still appears to have a long way to go, but as Rick Falkvinge notes, this is "the first time in several decades" that "politicians voted unanimously that the publicís access to knowledge and culture is more important than the copyright monopoly." It is a very small thing, but considering how rarely our elected officials are even willing to consider such a move, it's noteworthy.
from the there-can-be-no-copyright-exceptions-whatsoever dept
For a long time now, there's been an effort underway to craft important copyright exceptions for the visually impaired, which would do things like give them the right to convert a written work into an audio work through text-to-speech software. While it seems like this should be allowed (after all, isn't reading a book out loud legal under copyright law?) some have claimed that such text-to-speech efforts violate copyright law. There are some other areas, too, where copyright law makes life more difficult for the blind. To deal with this WIPO has been discussing a treaty that would create some copyright exceptions for these specific cases. Not surprisingly, the entertainment industry came out very strongly against helping the blind with such a treaty, as they fear any effort to add more exceptions to copyright law, even if it means the blind are more likely to consume their products.
Late last year, the Obama administration surprised a lot of us by going against the entertainment industry's wishes, and saying it actually supported the treaty's exceptions for the blind. I later heard from some folks who were a part of those discussions, who said it was actually a pretty heated battle among different camps within the administration to get it to support such a minor exception to copyright law, as the "usual suspects" were putting a lot of pressure on the administration to hold the line against any copyright exceptions.
Frankly, it still amazes me that anyone could be against a treaty designed to help the visually impaired from accessing more works.
Today a UN body is trying to reach an agreement on work on copyright exceptions for persons who are blind or have other disabilities. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is aggressively trying to block adoption of a work program that would include the possibility of a treaty. Officially, the USPTO is proposing an alternative approach that could be a step toward a treaty. Privately, the USPTO and other federal agencies are putting enormous pressure on countries to abandon a binding treaty in favor of a very weak and even harmful resolution.
Love quotes Justin Hughes from the USPTO threatening to a consumer rights organization that supports the proposal that he was going to "make your lives miserable." This would be the same Justin Hughes who was the source of the quotes a few months ago saying that the administration was all for these exceptions:
"We recognize that some in the international copyright community believe that any international consensus on substantive limitations and exceptions to copyright law would weaken international copyright law," Justin Hughes, a Department of Commerce senior adviser, told the WIPO on Tuesday. "The United States does not share that point of view."
Apparently, that was then. This is now. Back at the time, Hughes had implied that this was really a horse trade. The Obama administration would support these exceptions for the blind, but, in response would put its weight behind ACTA. That's the subtext of the following quotes:
"The United States is committed to both better exceptions in copyright law and better enforcement of copyright law," Hughes said. "Indeed, as we work with countries to establish consensus on proper, basic exceptions within copyright law, we will ask countries to work with us to improve the enforcement of copyright. This is part and parcel of a balanced international system of intellectual property."
So, with ACTA negotiations about to kickoff, it looks like the US has decided to focus just on "enforcement" and has given up any serious concern for "exceptions." Balance? Feels like someone's fingers are pushing down that scale entirely to one side. When was the last time that an administration actually was interesting in keeping the other side of copyright law equally balanced?