Special Education

‘Google’ Ruling on Digitizing Books a Boon for Blind Readers

By Nirvi Shah — October 12, 2012 2 min read
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When a federal judge this week threw out a copyright infringement lawsuit against universities working on a project with Google to digitize millions of books, he unleashed Google’s plans and opened the door to the distribution of these books to people who are blind or have other print disabilities.

The National Federation of the Blind on Thursday applauded the ruling, saying it will give blind students and scholars fresh access to the 10 million books placed in the digital library created by Cornell University, Indiana University, University of California, University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin.

In the ruling, Judge Harold Baer specifically cited the potential the digital works have for people with print disabilities. The defendants:

spelled out where blind scholars stood before digitalization: 'Prior to the development of accessible digital books, the blind could access print materials only if the materials were converted to braille or if they were read by a human reader, either live or recorded.' ... Absent a program like the [mass-digitization project], print-disabled students accessed course materials through a university's disability student services office, but most universities are able to provide only reading that was actually required... Print-disabled individuals read digital books independently through screen access software that allows text to be conveyed audibly or tactilely to print-disabled readers, which permits them to access text more quickly, reread passages, annotate, and navigate, just as a sighted reader does with text. ... Since the digital texts in the [project] became available, print-disabled students have had full access to the materials through a secure system intended solely for students with certified disabilities. ... Many of these works have tables of contents, which allow print-disabled students to navigate to relevant sections with a screen reader just as a sighted person would use the table of contents to flip to a relevant portion. In other words, academic participation by print-disabled students has been revolutionized."

The ruling in Authors Guild v. HathiTrust (the name of the universities’ collective repository of digital books), found that providing access for students with print disabilities is permitted under federal law. (Many new books are already available in digital format for people with print disabilities, available through groups including Bookshare.)

All of this stems from a court challenge that began in 2005, after Google lined up several universities to scan millions of books in their libraries—without permission from those who hold the copyrights to the works—and make excerpts available online through the tech company’s search engine. Writers, publishers, and the Authors Guild sued. Google settled with some of the book publishers last week. But the case isn’t all settled yet. Wired reports that litigation between the Authors Guild and Google is stalled; a federal appeals court is weighing a decision to certify the guild’s suit as a class action.

“Access to the printed word has historically been one of the greatest challenges faced by the blind,” said Marc Maurer, the president of the National Federation of the Blind, in a written statement. “The landmark decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York will revolutionize access to books for the blind. For the first time ever, blind students and scholars will have the opportunity to participate equally in library research.”

By the way, Netflix said this week that all of the streaming content it provides will be closed captioning within two years.

The National Association for the Deaf, the Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing-Impaired, and Lee Nettles, a deaf Massachusetts resident, sued Netflix over the issue in 2010. This week, Netflix signed a consent decree that states its intent to increase access to movies and television streamed online for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. The company began closed-captioning work in 2010 and has increased captioning for 90 percent of the hours. Captions can be displayed on a majority of the more than 1,000 devices on which the service is available. In addition, the company will make it easier to tell which content that has been captioned until all of its content reaches that point.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.


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