DRM: Disabling the disabled

This is a guest post by Storm Dragon and Kyle (co-writer), two blind anti-DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) activists. It focuses on the problems facing blind readers in the US, but much of it is applicable to other countries as well. The post was written for the 2015 International Day Against DRM.

DRM affects almost everyone on a daily basis, but in the blind community it is a problem of epic proportions. Usually when people want something to read, they go to a library, pick up a book, and check it out. Blind people in the US can use the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in almost the same way—except for one major difference: coming from the NLSBPH, books are usually audiobooks, stored in a specialized format encumbered with DRM.

DRM restricts audiobooks so that they can only play on specialized hardware: either a rather large and cumbersome device provided by the library or other specialized players that are extremely overpriced, starting at around $350 to $400 USD. If you want to listen to the book on your computer, your digital audio player, or your Android smartphone, too bad; although the stated intent of DRM is to prevent non-blind people from using the NSLBPH's books, it actually prevents blind people from using them on unsanctioned devices. A notable exception is Apple products, which allow sharing between devices, but only at the unacceptable cost of using particularly restrictive proprietary operating systems.

Attempting to read an audiobook from the NLSBPH in the US is comparable to going to the library and sitting down with a good book, only to find out that reading it requires a licensed pair of glasses, produced by only two or three vendors, available at checkout or purchased at a premium from authorized dealers.

DRM not only affects the accessibility of material to people with visual impairment, but also places an undue burden on the taxpayer, whose money the government uses to design the NSLBPH's needless DRM constraints. This tax money could be much better spent providing off-the-shelf players installed with free software, which would be capable of playing audiobooks in more compact formats, such as the Opus audio standard. Such free players could even be adapted to read a new generation of time-indexed markup, which would allow skipping backward and forward through a book by multiple levels of divisions, like sentences and chapters. This level of control over the reading experience, widely available to sighted people, is still mostly out of reach for the blind.

As a blind reader, I have had my own moral struggle with the problem of digital restrictions on the books I read. At this point, my only choices are to read books from LibriVox, which has a large selection, but very little new literature, or to find more questionable ways of obtaining books that do not suffer from restrictions that prevent me from reading them. Out of these choices, LibriVox is definitely the better option, even though it limits my selection of books to those in the public domain, or those which otherwise have no copyright restrictions of any kind. Although no copyright restrictions would be the ideal state of things for me, the fact remains that there are still very few new entries into the public domain, and that is not likely to change any time soon. So when someone tells me that they have read a really good book, I end up having to tell them that I am unable to read it, because although I have access to the file, it limits my ability to play it on the device I want to use, undercutting my freedom to read it.

Because digital restrictions are especially hard on people with disabilities, I urge everyone in the US to contact the National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, as well as their senators and representatives, to make them aware of the seriousness of the problem.

The US library is not the only one that suffers from these problems. I encourage anyone in any other country to find out what restrictions are on books that local blind and visually impaired people read. If they have the same digital restrictions, attempt to have laws changed in your country as well, "that all may read," as the US library so eloquently, but currently falsely, puts it.

In order to contact us or discuss this article, follow @storm@social.stormdragon.tk and @kyle@shoutit.ga from your favorite GNU social site. The authors also have Web sites at https://stormdragon.tk and http://kyle.tk/.

To the extent possible under law, Storm Dragon and Kyle has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to DRM: Disabling the disabled. This work is published from: United States.