Australia’s copyright reform could bring millions of books and other reads to the blind

Image 20170322 25755 1y5edm2
Rule change should make it easier for more copyright works to be made available in Braille.

Nicolas Suzor, Queensland University of Technology

Proposed changes to Australia’s copyright law should make it easier for people to create and distribute versions of copyrighted works that are accessible to people with disabilities. The Conversation

The Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and other Measures) Bill was introduced to Parliament on Wednesday.

If passed, it would enable people with disabilities to access and enjoy books and other material in formats they can use, such as braille, large print or DAISY audio.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has long been calling for action to end the “world book famine” – only 5% of books produced in Australia are available in accessible formats. This means that people with vision impairment and other reading disabilities are excluded from a massive proportion of the world’s knowledge and culture.

Under the current law, educational institutions and other organisations can produce accessible copies of books, but the system is slow and expensive. Only a small number of popular books are available, and technical books that people need for work are often out of reach.

Technology should make accessibility much easier, but publishers have been slow to enable assistive technologies.

People with disabilities have long complained that they are not able to take advantage of new technologies such as inbuilt screen reading software on computers and smartphones.

Amazon’s Kindle, for example, used to allow text-to-speech to help blind people read books, but Amazon gave in to publishers’ fears and allowed them to disable the feature. Apple’s electronic books are much better, but there are still major gaps.

Our research looked at books available through electronic academic databases, and found that most ebook libraries have some features that frustrate full accessibility.

The Copyright Act in its current form does grant statutory licences for copying by institutions that assist people with disabilities, but there are no comprehensive exceptions for individuals. Research shows that even students in resourced universities have trouble accessing the materials they need to study.

A fair right for people with disabilities

The new Bill aims to create a clear right for individuals to copy materials into accessible formats. Critically, this new “fair dealing” exception also allows other people to help out by creating and sharing accessible versions of books and other materials.

This is a major milestone in making copyright law more fair. It implements Australia’s obligations under the Marrakesh Treaty, a landmark international agreement designed to stop copyright getting in the way of accessibility.

The Marrakesh Treaty, once implemented around the world, will enable organisations to share accessible books to the people who need them in other countries. This is an extremely important change as the costs of scanning and making a book accessible are so high that most blind people are denied access to most works.

Once the laws are clarified, the accessibility of books will increase dramatically. Google has been busy digitising the world’s books, and it has given those books to a charity called Hathi Trust. Soon, Hathi Trust will be able to share those books with blind people around the world.

Google’s partnership with Hathi Trust means that blind people will soon be able to access more than 14 million volumes almost overnight. This figure may grow quickly as Google has already digitised more than 30 million books. Very soon, the proportion of accessible books might jump from 5-10% to closer to 30%.

A missed opportunity

The Bill also proposes a number of other long awaited updates to Australian copyright law. But one thing the Bill does not do is fix a drafting error that has plagued Australian copyright law for the past decade.

When Australia signed the Australia – US Free Trade Agreement, we introduced a system of “notice-and-takedown” that would protect copyright owners. The system provides a way for people to ask online service providers to remove content that infringes copyright.

But the law was poorly drafted. It applied only to a small number of Internet Service Providers (such as Telstra, Optus and iiNet) but not the larger category of search engines and content hosts.

This means it does not apply to giants such as Google and Facebook. It also means that other organisations that host content uploaded by users, such as The Conversation, are also excluded.

These safe harbours provide a shield in case people – outside of the service provider’s control – use their networks to upload content that infringes any copyright laws.

The reason they are so critical is that it is often prohibitively expensive for the companies that host internet content to check all content before a user uploads it.

But the safe harbours aren’t free. The quid pro quo is that the ISP must introduce a notice and takedown scheme. This is one of the few effective mechanisms to get content removed from the internet, and has been a crucial part of protecting the rights of publishers and authors online.

Professor Kim Weatherall explains the drafting error in Australia’s copyright safe harbours.

When the new Bill was first drafted, it was set to fix the drafting error that excludes content hosts, search engines, universities and other organisations from the scheme. But the Bill introduced this week contains no such fix.

The extension of these safe harbours has become highly politicised, with major rightsholders warning that it looked like a win for Google and Facebook.

The past two decades of the internet in the United States have shown how critical the safe harbours are to all developers, both large and small. They reduce uncertainty and allow innovation in the ways that people access content.

So while this new Bill is important, it is also a missed opportunity. The drafting error in Australia’s copyright safe harbours means that neither tech companies or authors and publishers are well protected.

Tess Van Geelen, a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology, contributed to this article.

Nicolas Suzor, Associate professor, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How 19th century fairy tales expressed anxieties about ecological devastation

Image 20170316 20776 17ofa73
In the Fir Tree, children stamp on a discarded – but feeling – Christmas tree.
The Fir Tree, illustrated by George Dalziel and Edward Dalziel, from Out of the Heart: Spoken to the Little Ones, 1867

Victoria Tedeschi, University of Melbourne

Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen was one of the most popular European fairy tale authors in 19th century England. While today Andersen is known for his agonised mermaids, disabled tin soldiers and disenfranchised match sellers, his Victorian readers celebrated tales that raised environmental concerns during an age of rapid industrialisation. The Conversation

According to a recent international research project, human activity has been the leading cause of global warming since the early stages of the Industrial Revolution – decades before scientists had previously estimated. Global warming is not a 20th-century phenomenon; rather, humans have been impacting the environment for over 180 years.

From 1760 to 1914 in England, vast numbers of people moved from the country to the city for financial security. London’s population swelled, prompting a century-long struggle with filth. An outdated sewage system released all human waste into the capital’s water supply, smoke poured from both factory and domestic chimneys and streets were caked with coal, mud, vegetable matter and animal waste.

As urban life became increasingly distanced from nature, Andersen’s fairy tales thrived. While Victorian fantasy literature often romanticised nature as an escape from the encroaching industrial landscape, Andersen showed human characters as the source of environmental degradation.

For example, Andersen’s stories The Fir Tree, The Daisy and The Flax, feature plants that are tortured and abused by human characters. In these stories, talking plants suffer the dangers of industry.

Illustration for The Daisy, by George Dalziel and Edward Dalziel.
Out of the Heart: Spoken to the Little Ones (1867)

Despite the pain they experience, these plants are selfless providers willing to compromise their personal happiness for human interest. These sympathetic depictions of nature, during a century of environmental devastation, encouraged children to reflect on their impact on the landscape.

Other tales, such as The Great Sea Serpent, detail the emerging conflict between animals and technology. The story describes fish reacting to the installation of the transatlantic telegraph cable, which ran the length of the Atlantic ocean between Europe and America.

With the chaos of the installation, schools of fish become separated, sea-anemones “were so agitated that they threw up their stomachs” and the cod and flounders who once “lived peacefully” began to eat their neighbours.

When the fish rally together to destroy the cable, a shark is impaled by a sword-fish and “great fishes and small, sea-anemones and snails rushed at one another, ate each other, mashed and squeezed in” while “the cable lay quietly and attended to its affairs”. The telegraph cable is not a positive technological breakthrough, but a threat to the environment.

Illustration from A Drop of Water.

A microscopic (yet equally voracious) ecosystem and its parallels with increasingly hostile cities is the subject of Andersen’s Drop of Water. A sorcerer named Creep-and-Crawl examines an extract of ditch water using a microscopic lens. He notices organisms that “hopped and jumped about, pulled one another and pecked one another”. Seeing the organism’s violent, unruly conduct, his colleague assumes that the creatures must be living in a capital city.

The Victorian public was equally horrified by the organisms that were hidden in its drinking water. The fear of contaminated water was well founded: an antiquated sewage system directed London’s cesspools to the Thames, which was the capital’s water reserve. Chemicals from factories were also released into the river, spreading waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.

Andersen’s contemporaries also exaggerated microscopic images of organisms (otherwise known as “monster soup”) in contemporary journals. In these illustrations, samples of water from the Thames were filled with a host of aggressive, potentially deadly beasts.

Anonymous engraving in Punch Magazine, The Wonders of a London Water Drop.

For example, an anonymous illustration published in Punch magazine in 1850 shows hybrid and humanoid creatures wearing tuxedos in a petri dish. Amidst the chaos, small worm-like creatures spell out the word “pestilence”.

William Heath’s coloured engraving from 1828 features winged creatures, hybrid animals and crustaceans with protruding fangs; the woman viewing the contaminated water is so disgusted that she drops her cup and saucer.

Monster Soup Commonly Known as Thames Water (1828), William Heath.
Public domain

By exploring the repercussions of an industrialised landscape, Andersen’s fairy tales provided commentary on a very real, looming threat to the English landscape and its population.

Today, with the steady rise of dystopian literature, ecofiction and climate change fiction (otherwise known as “cli fi”), we see similar artistic responses to environmental change which steer readers away from complacency. As authors seek to express the gravity and severity of ecological crises, their literature holds the potential to inspire radical change.

Victoria Tedeschi, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Finished Reading: Everlife (Book 1) – Firstlife, by Gena Showalter

Firstlife (Everlife, #1)Firstlife by Gena Showalter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

View all my reviews