1. Introduction
The European Blind Union (EBU) and its member organisations throughout the European Un-ion are very concerned at the impact which digital rights management schemes can have on both blind and partially sighted people, and indeed others with a reading related disability such as dyslexia. We can be denied equal access to knowledge and culture if digital rights management schemes are inadequately designed or unfairly deployed.

Full and equitable access to information is essential if people with sight loss are to compete on equal terms in education and employment. It is also essential to full enjoyment of all aspects of daily life and of the potential advantages which modern technology brings. Voluntary agencies serving people with sight loss in member states devote significant voluntary resources to trying to ensure that blind and partially sighted people are not left behind by advances in communica-tion, be it in the fields of broadcasting, telecommunications or publishing. This is an extremely challenging task, given the speed of development in these fields.

2. The issues for blind and partially sighted people
Blind, partially sighted and other print disabled people read electronic material by modifying the way in which it is presented, without modifying the content. They may do this through mag-nification, transformation into synthetic audio, or the use of a temporary, or "refreshable" braille display. In some instances the software with which to make these changes is incorporated in mainstream packages, but the most flexible and adaptable solutions are achieved via dedicated "screen reader" software. The term "assistive technology" is used in this document to refer to this form of access.

Digital rights management schemes, or the technological protection measures within them, can react to assistive technology as if it was an illicit operation. Thus, the DRM systems applied to e-Books and e-documents can prevent access by people who use assistive technology to read the screen or to control the computer.

In those circumstances, the blind user is prevented from achieving the same degree of access as his sighted counterpart, or indeed any access at all.

A second problem can be the "disabling" of speech functions in a particular publication. While e-book readers may have the facility to reproduce synthetic speech, the rights holder can apply a level of security which prevents this from working. A person with sight loss can thus buy a book but find herself unable to read it.

We have been contacted by several people who have purchased e-Books from both major retail-ers and small publishers, only to find that they are unable to read them because of the way that the DRM has been applied.

For example, Lynn from London bought a Bible from Amazon, and found that the content was locked in such a way that she could not read it with her screen reader. She contacted Amazon who advised her to contact the publisher. Having taken this extraordinary step, she was told "there is nothing we can do about it".

EBU views this as discriminatory practice, as publishers are erecting barriers to access, however unwittingly. We do not believe there are commercial or technical reasons for this to continue.

This situation is in fact deeply ironic, since an e-Book can be a great way to make publications accessible to people who cannot read print. It is unsatisfactory and unnecessary because tech-nology companies such as Adobe have actually taken steps to ensure that content can be pro-tected and yet access still provided to disabled customers.

3. Technical analysis
Both Adobe Security and Adobe DRM can be configured to restrict the use of access tools such as screen readers. Typically, a commercial document or e-book in PDF format will have all accessibility features disabled. This is not the default position but is easily and most often se-lected by commercial publishers.

Microsoft e-book reader sells most of its titles with an "owner exclusive" level of security. In addition to having this "anti-piracy" function, the Owner Exclusive book also has use restric-tions that apply to the legitimate owner of the e-book. In particular the text-to-speech capability that is built into Microsoft Reader for accessibility purposes is disabled. Similarly, "Owner Ex-clusive" limits use of the product to one device, which prevents a visually impaired user from downloading from a desk top PC to a more congenial device such as a lap top braille notetaker.

The objective of applying DRM to a piece of content is to define and implement the rules for the access to and use of that content. To achieve this, the DRM system has to operate in a con-trolled and trusted environment in which it is able to control all the options available to a user of the content.

This control requirement extends to accessibility tools – and explains the problems which have arisen in a conflict between DRM and accessibility. The Microsoft text to speech (TTS) synthe-sis tool has a broad functionality which is also incorporated in the Adobe Acrobat Reader. As a tool it is considered to pose a threat to DRM controlled content because of its broad functional-ity and because it does not connect in a trusted manner with the DRM system.

This is why the DRM system in the Microsoft e-Book Reader application blocks the use of the TTS tool when the DRM is configured to manage the rights in premium (commercial) content. This was originally the default position with the Adobe Reader.

There are essentially two ways in which this problem can be addressed. The first is to set up a system where the DRM mechanism is able to recognise a trusted accessibility tool and then unblock access to content for that tool. The second way is by devising instructions, expressed through the rights expression language, which are available to authorised users of trusted access tools.

Adobe has already initiated a program incorporating the first approach. The DRM system used in the Adobe reader is now able to recognise and establish a trusted relationship with at least two accessibility tools (Window-Eyes and Jaws screen readers). Allowing access to DRM pro-tected content is now reportedly the default position of the reader.

The effect of this trusted relationship between the Reader and the accessibility tools is that ac-cess (including text to speech) can be facilitated without in any way derogating from the secu-rity level applied to the content generally (e.g. no printing, no altering, no saving to alternate formats).

To achieve this relationship, third party applications are submitted to Adobe for testing the secu-rity and compatibility issues. To quote from Adobe's Loretta Guarino Reid, in a response to an enquiry from the RNIB "Techies" e-mail list dated 15th December, 2005: "Our solution de-pends on a special mechanism that vendors can use to identify themselves as trusted clients. To implement this properly really requires suitable operating system support to provide a secure channel to trusted client programs, and a good mechanism for validating the identity of the cli-ent program."

Thus the feasibility of access to Adobe DRM through assistive technology has been established, but effective realisation remains protracted and by no means universally rolled out.

The information of this chapter is drawn largely from "Accessing and Protecting Content", by Garnett, White and Mann (Garnett et al. 2005), a report prepared during 2005 by RNIB within the European Accessible Information Network Project (cf. sources) funded by the European Commission. We would also like to recommend an article entitled "The soundproof book", by George Kerscher, International Project Manager, DAISY Consortium, and Jim Fruchterman, CEO, the Benetech Initiative (Kerscher and Fruchterman 2002). Although written some time ago, this article has not lost its validity, and still poignantly illustrates the threats posed by DRM.

4. The legal background
International treaties have long permitted national legislatures to introduce exceptions and limi-tations to copyright in various circumstances, including exceptions and limitations for the bene-fit of people with a reading related disability. By no means all EU member states yet have such exceptions, and there is no consistency amongst the exception regimes that do exist.

Unfortunately, technological protection measures can negate these exceptions if they make it difficult or impossible to access material which one is entitled to read.

At international level, the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT) require, in Articles 11 and 18 respectively, legal protection for rights holders using technological protection measures. However, they make no specific provi-sions to protect the beneficiaries of exceptions to copyright whose access is blocked by such measures.

Individual member states and the European Union collectively will shortly be ratifying these treaties.

Fortunately, the European Copyright Directive (EUCD 2001) is more helpful. While it, too, seeks adequate safeguards for rights holders against the circumvention of technological protec-tion measures, it does state in Article 6.4.1:
"…in the absence of voluntary measures taken by right hold-ers, including agreements between right holders and other parties concerned, Member States shall take appropriate measures to ensure that right holders make available to the beneficiary of an exception or limitation provided for in national law in accordance with Article 5(2)(a), (2)(c), (2)(d), (2)(e), (3)(a), (3)(b) or (3)(e) the means of benefiting from that exception or limita-tion, to the extent necessary to benefit from that exception or limitation and where that beneficiary has legal access to the protected work or subject-matter concerned" (EUCD 2001).

Article 5.3.b is the one relating to exceptions and limitations for the benefit of people with a reading related disability. Hence the Directive envisages protection against technological exclu-sion for such users.

Again, there is no evident consistency in the way in which these provisions are being transposed into national law. It is ironic that a directive which has the word "harmonisation" in its title does nothing to harmonise exceptions to copyright or protection of the beneficiaries of those excep-tions that do exist. The EUAIN project (referred to above) will be analysing the implementation across the EU of Article 6.4.1 and, if appropriate, making recommendations to the Commission on required changes.

It is essential that governments set up robust, effective and efficient procedures to allow print disabled people who find their access blocked by a technological protection measure to gain the access to which they are entitled. For legislation to permit circumvention in certain well-defined circumstances would be helpful. That alone, however, would not be the total answer, as the potential user might not have the necessary skills to circumvent. Arrangements for prompt legal or administrative recourse are also required.

As already noted, the European Union has recognised that copyright exceptions for disabled people may be compromised by the technological protection measures within DRM Systems. Subsequent to the passage of the Directive, both DG Information Society and DG Enterprise conducted work on DRM, the latter through CEN (Centre Européen de Normalisation). This work indicated that the whole issue remains fluid and largely untested, and that interoperability and protection of consumer rights are key issues which still need to be safeguarded.

5. Conclusions and recommendations
The access rights of people with sight loss have not yet been sufficiently recognised by politi-cians, standards bodies, content providers or the IT industry.

Governments and Parliaments have a duty

  • a) to ensure that they have comprehensive and up to date provisions to ensure that accessible copies of all published material can be created without the requirement for rights holder permission; and
  • b) to establish effective measures to give the beneficiaries of such exceptions immediate and equitable access to material from which they find themselves excluded by protection or rights management measures.
If such procedures can be achieved through voluntary agreement with rights holder groups they will probably work more smoothly, but legal backing for the right of access is essential in the interests of social inclusion and equitable treatment of people with disabilities.

The publishing and IT industries also have an important role to play. The developers of DRM schemes should apply principles of universal design. They must address the impact of DRM on readers using assistive technology, ensuring that such technology is recognised as legitimate and authorising appropriate manipulation of the way in which content is presented.

It is also in publishers' interests to ensure that the way in which their assets are packaged do not limit the number of potential customers.


About the author: David Mann, RNIB (Royal National Institute of the Blind), Chair, Euro-pean Blind Union Working Group on Copyright and Publishing. David, himself visually impaired, works as a lobbyist for RNIB, the UK’s leading voluntary agency for blind and partially sighted people. Previous experience includes managing the RNIB Talking Book Service and campaign-ing on copyright and related issues. Contact: David.Mann@rnib.org.uk

Status: first posted 26/01/06; licensed under Creative Commons
URL: http://www.indicare.org/tiki-read_article.php?articleId=170