Monday, July 28, 2014

Thank You, Gerardo!

The Benetech team has just bid goodbye to VP of Engineering Gerardo Capiel, who is moving on to his next adventure. A passionate technology-for-good advocate, Gerardo has made major contributions to Benetech’s social mission since he joined us over four years ago. As we are getting ready to welcome a new VP of Engineering, I’d like to acknowledge and thank Gerardo for his many contributions and their lasting impact on the lives of the people we serve.

Gerardo helped Benetech dramatically increase our capacity to benefit larger populations by scaling our services, revamping our innovation process, and establishing a thriving network of industry partners and volunteers. He oversaw the development of numerous products and services that allow us to drive social empowerment through technology across all our programs. He also championed an open source ethos so that our work can be broadly shared (you can view all our open source projects on GitHub). Gerardo’s contributions related to the Benetech Global Literacy Program include:
  • Overseeing the building of the tech infrastructure that has taken Bookshare from serving tens of thousands of members to over 300,000 members, with a rapidly growing collection of 280,000+ accessible ebooks.
  • Leading the engineering team behind an expanding portfolio of Global Literacy products and initiatives, such as:
    • Route66, our online instructional literacy program for adolescent and adult beginning readers;
    • The Poet image description tool;
    • Read2Go, the bestselling accessible ebook reader app for iPhones and iPads, and Go Read, the equivalent Android app;
    • MathML Cloud, a cloud-based app that automatically creates accurate images and image descriptions of mathematical expressions, while retaining the detailed math markup for reference;
    • Major new features and formats for Bookshare,  including audio versions of our ebooks; Spanish text-to-speech; web-based reading and organizational tools, and more. 
Former Benetech VP of Engineering speaking with team members during a brainstorming session in Benetech offices.
Gerardo during a brainstorming session in Benetech offices
  • Advising to and leading Benetech’s collaboration with standards organizations and groups that advance the field of accessibility in education, such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the DAISY Consortium. These efforts helped drive Benetech’s new work on accessible widgets, experiments with scalable vector graphics (an open standard for rendering graphics in web browser, developed by W3C), annotation as a tool for accessibility, and more.
  • Overseeing the Accessibility Metadata Project, with which we led a collaborative effort to develop standards for accessibility metadata. As Gerardo explained in a recent blog post, Schema.org—the organization that keeps a list of agreed-upon tags that all search engines can use in common—adopted our proposed standards, so that search engine users can refine their searches to easily find accessible learning resources online.
  • Inspiring hacker-led efforts to collaboratively experiment to advance the field of accessibly in education through initiative such as an accessibility sprint with OERPub, or work on MathML protocol handler.
Additionally, Gerardo helped conceive our major new effort to ignite new tech social enterprise through Benetech Labs. Select examples of Labs initiatives in which he was instrumental include:
  • SocialCoding4Good, a major tech volunteerism initiative bridging the open source software, nonprofit, and corporate tech communities. SocialCoding4Good connects software developer professionals from companies like VMware, HP, and Google to volunteer their time and technical talent to open source social good projects at Benetech and our peers, including the Mifos Initiative, Wikimedia Foundation, Medic Mobile, and Mozilla.
  • Clean Water Project, an effort to strengthen the capacity of Latin American clean water organizations through enhanced data platforms.
Gerardo has shared many of his presentations on these and other topics, which are available via SlideShare.

On behalf of the Benetech team, thank you, Gerardo, for the immense impact you helped us create in the lives of multitudes around the world, and for establishing Benetech in such a strong position to create more impact than ever in the coming years!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Road to Accessibility without Borders: Celebrating the One-Year Anniversary of the Marrakesh Treaty

One year ago, on June 28, 2013, at a diplomatic conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) agreed on a historic international copyright exception for people with print disabilities. Hailed as “the Miracle in Marrakesh,” the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled paves the way to expanding access to books for people with print disabilities and provides the necessary legal framework for authorized organizations, like Benetech and our Bookshare initiative, to deliver those books across international borders.

Stevie Wonder standing holding a microphone, smiling
As a long-time advocate for a global copyright exception and the founder of Benetech—which I started twenty-five years ago in order to make technology tools to address the needs of people with print disabilities—I was thrilled to become an active player in global diplomacy and witness the adoption and signing of this landmark Treaty. I have previously written about the top issues addressed by the Treaty, but to recap, the Treaty is a wonderful instrument because it requires exceptions for people who are blind or have other print disabilities in national copyright laws. As a result, the Treaty closely follows the Chafee Amendment, which is the copyright exception that has made Bookshare possible in the United States. During the diplomatic conference, Bookshare was the most-cited model of what other countries could hope to achieve with the Treaty.

The Treaty also aims to free up cross-border access to books that serve people with print disabilities, which will make it possible for libraries like Bookshare both to deliver our entire collection directly to people with print disabilities living in other countries and receive more content, in more languages, for Americans from sources outside of the United States.

Thus far, more than 75 countries have signed the Treaty, and in June India became the first country to ratify it. This is a major step forward and is especially exciting for Benetech, as we have an active Bookshare presence in India, where we have developed strong relationships with key organizations such as Saksham Trust (New Delhi), Xavier's Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (Mumbai), the Worth Trust (Chennai) and other groups associated with the DAISY Forum of India.

We hope that many other countries will follow India’s ratification. The Treaty will take effect only after 20 ratifications are presented to WIPO. Its signature period has now ended. Going forward, new countries that want to abide by the Treaty provisions would need to directly ratify it. In order to ratify the Treaty, the ratifying country must have in its own copyright legislation the minimum standards that are in the Treaty. As part of the celebrations around the first anniversary of the Marrakesh Treaty, WIPO launched the Accessible Books Consortium, to help increase global capacity to deliver books to people with print disabilities.

We certainly have plenty to celebrate on the first anniversary of the signing of the Treaty, but the road towards equal accessibility for all is still long and there is much that remains to be done. First, WIPO, with a mandate from its member nations, is working to address the need to change national laws and get more accessible books flowing—a process that will take a long time. There are also multiple issues that are yet to be negotiated, such as the commercial availability condition, that is, the question of whether the ability to exercise an exception or limitation to prepare a copy of a book in specialized format for those with print disabilities should depend on whether the material was commercially available in that format.

In his lecture at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society on April 23, 2014, law professor Justin Hughes, chief negotiator for the United States for the Marrakesh Treaty, indeed emphasized the arduous journey ahead:
I do think that [the Treaty] is somewhat of a paradigm shift in the intellectual property context, but the real policy goal, the real thing we should care about is getting educational, cultural, informational materials into the hands of persons with print disabilities. And when you sign the treaty, you haven’t succeeded. Success is when the person in Panama has access to 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 titles; success is when the blind person in Durban has access to all the books that the blind person in Denver has access to […] The miracle comes when I know that the 300 million people around the world with significant visual impairments are getting more access to books.
On the bright side here in the United States, it’s now fully accepted that making accessible versions of books for people with print disabilities is lawful based on fair use, as has been recently affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Authors Guild v. HathiTrust. Furthermore, the accessibility community can work together to prepare the ground for providing accessible books for people around the world. That’s why Benetech is looking forward to continuing to collaborate with publishers, content creators, libraries, leaders in the technology sector, and key groups in the disability and accessibility movement, like the World Blind Union, as we support the ratification and implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty both around the world and in the United States.

Access to written materials and education is not a privilege, but a basic human right—fundamental to personal, economic, and social development. I hope you join us as we advance this global right and work towards making the Marrakesh Treaty as successful as possible, so that it can empower people with print disabilities—particularly those in developing countries—to live fuller lives based on equal access to knowledge.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Martus 4.5: Lowering the Barrier to Better Information Security through Strong Crypto

Last week, the Benetech Human Rights Program released version 4.5 of Martus—our free, open source, secure information collection and management software—which includes major updates and usability improvements. Our goal is to make it far easier for groups that work with vulnerable populations keep the sensitive information they collect confidential. Having long supported human rights activists, we know the importance of confidentiality when working with victims and witnesses.

The biggest highlight of this release is that Martus 4.5 can now be configured in less than 10 minutes by anyone with basic digital literacy skills, so that even less tech-savvy users can easily and quickly implement Martus’ secure documentation capabilities with distributed backup. Martus 4.5 features a new Configuration Wizard for account setup, offering fresh look-and-feel and greatly improved user experience. Additionally, major enhancements to its architecture simplify the secure backup, sharing, and distribution of information to trusted partners.

Screenshot of the new Configuration Wizard for Martus account setup, available with the newly released version 4.5 of Martus.
Martus 4.5 can now be configured in less than 10 minutes
by anyone with basic digital literacy skills
I’d like to thank everyone on the Benetech team who has worked on this release, and express our gratitude to our programmatic partners and financial supporters who made it possible.

We’re very excited about Martus 4.5. We see it as a milestone in our continuing effort to better serve our current users as well as the larger community involved in human rights documentation, including journalists and citizen reporters. Our goal is to make the defenders of human rights stronger in their fight against injustice and abuse, and to help them uphold their commitments to protect and do no harm to the communities they serve. You can read more about Martus 4.5 in the post by our VP of Human Rights Enrique Piracés on Benetech’s Blog.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Reimagining the Power of One Billion Dollars

“What would you do with a billion dollars to combat economic inequality?” asked Chris Anderson, head of TED, at the closing session of this year’s conference. More specifically: “how would you audaciously reinvest that amount of money to best help the world’s 3.5 billion poorest people?” he probed.
Having just heard the new director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito, present the Labs’ latest approach to innovation—“Deploy or Die”—I was inspired to answer the question.

Bottom-Up Innovation

Joi’s new motto underscores the need for more than just tech demos to change the world. To make them truly count, we must put our technology innovations into the hands of real people and see what actually works.
Technology has advanced to a point where it is easy to do so. Whether it’s software, hardware, or even biotech, the cost of prototyping and deploying new tools, then adapting them and iterating, is now extremely low.
As I previously described in a Huffington Post op-ed, it was then that the idea struck me. What if we applied Joi’s agile, bottom-up innovation approach to the global development challenge posed by Chris? What if we invest philanthropic capital in creating products that are geared towards the underprivileged, in their customer-focused deployment, and in scaling those tools that prove to work best?
I believe such an investment in technology-for-good innovations could open up new frontiers for tackling the toughest problems of the world’s poorest populations, from poverty to disease to social injustice. Let me explain. 
What could a billion dollars do?
For one, it could scale Joi Ito’s approach by creating a Media Lab-style network whose goal would be to build and deploy hundreds of technology solutions customized to the needs of the bottom billions of humanity. We’d pick projects that had the opportunity for a five- or 10-fold improvement in results, or might revolutionize the way people do something. The solutions that catch fire with their intended users would then be scaled up.
Why is this idea exciting? Because it inverts the power structure and pushes innovation to the edges. By making technology applications suitable and relevant to the lives of the world’s poorest people, we can advance a future in which everyone has a fair shot at sharing in the abundance created by today’s accelerating technologies.
Moreover, since the nature of technology is such that it comes instrumented for measurement, this approach also supports the development of best practices in the delivery of social outcomes, which is essential in order to create meaningful, lasting change. 

The Innovation Bucket List

Based on conversations I’ve had with groups dedicated to applying innovative solutions to the needs of the bottom half of humanity, here is a very partial list of what we could possibly do:
  • Exposing corruption: Help the fight against large-scale public corruption, which is so damaging to the poor, by marshaling the power of citizens to shine light on corrupt anonymous corporations and their beneficial owners—one of the goals of this year’s TED Prize Winner, Global Witness’ Charmian Gooch.
  • Self-assessment for the poor: Empower the poor to improve their lives with a simple assessment tool, the Poverty Stoplight, invented in Paraguay that helps them assess their poverty with 50 simple questions with three pictures showing the possible answers. This empowers each individual to set his or her own priorities rather than one-size-fits-all aid programs.
  • Empower Medical Paraprofessionals: Ensure that a simple tool providing step-by-step medical emergency instructions was in the hands of every medical paraprofessional on the planet, saving untold lives in developing countries.
  • Solve the problem of access to printed information by the worlds blind: By putting the right tools into the hands of this traditionally underserved population, we could ensure that blindness is no longer a barrier to education, employment or social inclusion.

Technology for Good

The list could go on and on. These ideas aren’t mine: they are the ideas that come to our team at Benetech, a Silicon Valley nonprofit technology company that I founded.
We build software applications focused exclusively on addressing unmet social needs and see hundreds of ideas for tech applications for good for each one that we can create. Imagine how many millions of lives would be improved—even transformed—if the technology-for-good movement had the freedom to build and deploy hundreds of best-of-breed products specifically designed to address these complex social problems.
Now is the time to apply an agile approach to innovation—Joi Ito’s “Deploy or Die” at scale, if you will—to social sector problems. For in this After Internet era, as Joi calls it, information technology is touching all aspects of society. Every area—whether health, poverty, education, human rights or the environment—is now information technology and thus can be improved with the right technology tools.

Innovate, Connect, Adapt

Now don’t get me wrong: technology alone is no panacea for humanity’s toughest problems. And building technology solutions for the social sector isn’t purely an office-desk business based on the thrill of empowering people in principle.
Years of working closely with partners on the ground in often-difficult situations –including people with disabilities and at-risk human rights defenders – have taught us that we must get out there and truly understand the people we aspire to help and the contexts in which they live and operate. We must also treat our beneficiaries as customers and partners in social change, not as passive recipients of charity.
These principles themselves—innovate, connect and adapt—aren’t new. They are at the core of the Silicon Valley venture world and the technology revolution. What’s new and timely is the opportunity to apply them globally with philanthropic support by making technology suitable and relevant to the lives of the world’s most underprivileged communities.
What if we brought the power that creates so much wealth in the tech community to bear on the inequality challenge? If we can do that, it could be the best and most powerful billion dollars ever spent!

This post originally appeared on CSRwire TalkBack.

Monday, June 23, 2014

10X: CEO’s Update: Spring 2014

10X: ten times the impact. That’s what’s been on my mind lately. How can our existing successful programs reach ten times more people? How can we use technology in a new way to improve people’s lives that is an order of magnitude better? Can we help stimulate the creation of far more technology-for-good ventures?

The Benetech team has already accomplished great things for our users, but there is so much more we can do. Technology currently serves privileged groups through tools that provide access to education, literacy, health, and justice. But what about everybody else? While it’s not a panacea, technology has been the engine of so many improvements in society.

The time has never been better to think 10X bigger! I have disruptive approaches to social innovation in mind, with an increasingly connected society where the cost of prototyping and deploying new products is extremely low, and where innovation is no longer the sole purview of well-funded for-profit corporations. We deliver philanthropic donors exciting returns on their investments (i.e., donations), but we focus exclusively on return to humanity.

At Benetech, we are harnessing these new rules of innovation. We want to help lead the charge into a future where the advantages of digital information touch the lives of all people, not just of the richest and most able five percent of humanity.

As always, I’m delighted to share the latest Benetech highlights as we work on these ambitious 10X dreams!

Highlights of this Update:
Human Rights

In the age of hyper-surveillance, it is clear that at-risk human rights defenders are no longer the only ones who need the know-how to protect sensitive information. This is especially true given that so many nonprofit and humanitarian groups are collecting private information that, even though intended to help, could inadvertently put the vulnerable populations they serve at risk of harm from repressive regimes, organized crime, and increasingly corporations.

Benetech is tackling these issues on two fronts, thanks to the leadership of Enrique Piracés, who joined us last year from Human Rights Watch. First, we are working to lower the barrier to the use of strong encryption to automatically protect the privacy of sensitive information. Second, we are stepping up our efforts to increase the awareness of this critical issue and practical actions that can be taken.

One major step to improving security of sensitive information was the recent development and release of Mobile Martus. Built on our Martus technology, Mobile Martus is designed to bring secure data collection, storage, and backup closer to activists working in the field. The application allows any user to send information—including photos, videos, audio, or text—simply and securely to a Martus account. The information can then be erased from the phone, to safeguard it from the phone’s possible loss or confiscation.

We are also doing far more to spread the word about technology for rights activists, often in close collaboration with major partners in the human rights field such as Human Rights Watch and WITNESS. Our team presented at multiple sessions at the recent RightsCon Silicon Valley conference, which brought together human rights defenders, security experts, and tech executives. Prior to the conference, Enrique Piracés and I authored a Huffington Post op-ed on human rights and the duty to protect sensitive data and our maxim: first, do no harm. Based on that message, at the following 30th TED conference in Vancouver, Canada, I delivered an onstage exhortation to fellow technologists to secure their customers’ sensitive information in response to Edward Snowden’s surprise virtual TED interview. Moreover, we recently held a two-day workshop in New York City, bringing together a wide range of activists and funders, developing a model we plan to replicate around the world.

Portrait of Richard Lusimbo.
 Ugandan LGBTI activist and Martus user Richard Lusimbo
at the 2014 RightsCon human rights conference.
Photo credit: Katy Steinmetz, TIME Magazine.
With these tools, our goal is to make the defenders of human rights stronger in their fight against injustice and abuse. This year, it’s been especially worrisome to see the rising tide of violence against the lesbian and gay communities around the world. This is one reason why our Human Rights Field Team is supporting LGBTI rights groups from the Caribbean to the African regions with targeted Martus and capacity building trainings. For LGBTI individuals—like courageous Ugandan activist Richard Lusimbo, who was outed on the front page of a Ugandan tabloid—the availability of Martus and our in-field support is life changing. I encourage you to read his powerful story on our website.


Global Literacy
 
Benetech CEO Jim Fruchterman and Bookshare member Kevin Leong posing to the camera, smiling, at Benetech's offices.
Sixth Grader and Bookshare member Kevin Leong with
Jim Fruchterman at Benetech's offices. Bookshare is helping Kevin—
who had suffered a brain injury—to keep up with his school work.
Our Bookshare online library is continuing to multiply its impact. The Global Literacy team, led by VP & General Manager Betsy Beaumon, just celebrated our latest major milestones: serving 300,000 members, the majority of whom are American students with disabilities, and offering 250,000 accessible books on the virtual shelves of our library. This represents a 10x growth over the past 6 years, and a 20% and 25% growth, respectively, over less than a year: growth rates associated more with successful commercial services, and unheard of in our field. With Bookshare, our student members can access and read the books they need—in the classroom, at home, and on the go—and have a fair opportunity to succeed at school just like their peers without disabilities. And we do this at a per-book cost less than one-tenth of the traditional approaches!

The next 10X opportunity is to go global, by ramping up Bookshare International to serve the millions of people with print disabilities worldwide. The Oak Foundation just awarded us a grant to provide accessible content to people with qualifying learning differences (like dyslexia) in Brazil, India, and the United Kingdom. Canadians with disabilities will now have access to Bookshare through their public libraries and the Canadian National Institute of the Blind. The Lavelle Foundation is supporting us to expand Bookshare in India, which will likely be our first full-scale replication of Bookshare outside the U.S. All of this work helps us support the international effort for full implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty—a global copyright exception model that provides the legal framework for greater sharing of accessible books across national borders.

What about yet another order of magnitude beyond that? We believe that all ebooks should be fully accessible, so that a person with a disability can effectively use the exact same ebook that somebody without a disability gets on their Kindle or iPad. Our Born Accessible and DIAGRAM Center initiatives are leading the way towards this transition to inclusive publishing, by engaging a broad community of industry and technology leaders. We recently won a Microsoft’s Solutions for Good award, which funds the development of MathML Cloud—a cloud-based app that can make math equations talk in any web browser or ebook. We want to see that students with disabilities have equal opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

We even convinced schema.org—the standards setting body for the big search engines—to adopt a standard to make it easier to discover accessible materials online. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our Accessibility Metadata Project will make it possible for people with disabilities to find materials in the format that works best for them as they search for the information they need for education, employment, and greater inclusion in society.

Benetech Labs and Board of Directors

We kicked off 2014 in Benetech Labs with our inaugural Labs brainstorm meeting talking about 3D printing for education and software to help deliver clean water, with a great group of leaders from the technology, philanthropy, social innovation, and education sectors. These Labs supporters make it possible for us to explore many new Labs project ideas, looking for the next great social enterprise.

We are also excited that technologist and social entrepreneur Kushal Chakrabarti has joined us part-time as Senior Advisor while we are in the early stages of the Labs. Kushal is the founder and co-chairman of Vittana, an award-winning nonprofit that fights youth poverty in developing countries. His expertise in rapid product development coupled with his experience pioneering disruptive social services will provide a critical global perspective that will help us take Benetech Labs to the next level.

Finally, we are thrilled to have Christy Chin step into a new role of Chair of the Benetech Board of Directors. A Managing Director at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Christy has made invaluable contributions to Benetech since she joined our Board in 2009. I am especially excited, as I’ve been our Chair since our founding, and know that Christy’s leadership will be crucial in taking Benetech to that next factor of ten increase in impact.

Conclusion
This is a most exciting time for the technology-for-good movement and for Benetech. Information technology is touching all aspects of society, and every area—whether health, poverty, education, human rights, or the environment—can be improved with the right technology tools. I invite you to join us as we open new frontiers at the intersection of technology and social change.

My number one job these days is talking to bold philanthropists who share my excitement about helping so many more people through factor of ten improvements. These dramatic changes couldn’t be possible without people who are willing to bet on our team and their vision of technology making a better world. If you want to speak with me about this personally, or know someone who would (or should), I would love to get together with you!

Jim Fruchterman
Founder and CEO, Benetech

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Last Walk

On rare occasions, I choose to share something personal on my blog, which focuses normally on Benetech, technology for good and social entrepreneurship.  Two weeks ago, I wrote the following to friends and family:
Australian shepherd dog next to a tree wrapped with her leashOur beloved Australian shepherd, Calypso, turned 14 years old today. I just took her on a walk around the block. It was bittersweet. Time has been kind to her looks, but not her mind. Her coloration is such that gray doesn't show: she looks the same as she did ten years ago, except a bit thinner. But, our bright, vivacious dog has slowly gone away. She's lost most of her vision, and most of her hearing, and it seems like she has the dog equivalent of Alzheimer's. Formerly a fiend for toys, and an avid playmate for other dogs, she doesn't notice them anymore. As she slowly went around the block, limping and stumbling over cracks in the sidewalk, I began to realize that this might be the last time I get to take her on a walk around the block. A few flashes of the former dog showed as she eagerly sniffed a tree or two at the beginning of the walk, but eventually settled into a slow routine. She even walked by our front gate, missing her arrival home, formerly the occasion for great excitement. But, as we started up the walk, I got the glimmer I hoped for that she knew she was home (or did I imagine it?), As I unlocked the door, she turned around and looked down our front walk. Perhaps we both wondered if there would be a next time. Happy birthday, Calypso. We already miss you.
I was in tears writing the words above, which is pretty rare as a die-hard analytic geek engineer.  And Calypso was aware of that.  That evening the old Calypso resurfaced a bit as she stuck by my side as she used to do when anyone was upset, licking my hand in support.

My worried post on canine cognitive decline turned out to be even more true than I expected.  Calypso declined rapidly and passed away last week, only eight days later, in the arms of my (adult) son, Andy.  That was indeed our last walk around the block.

I'm sharing this because my initial words touched many of my friends, who shared their understanding.  And for my colleagues, who might have detected some slacking off lately in my relentlessly optimistic Energizer Bunny persona.

Many of us feel like our pets are integral parts of our families.  Although the passing of a pet isn't "supposed" to affect us so strongly, for many of us  it clearly does.  My family is still walking around out of balance, always expecting to see our dog, starting to go to feed her or let her out.  There's a dog-sized hole in our lives, and it is a much bigger hole than I ever expected.

I thought I'd share a picture of Calypso in her prime, as we'll remember her.
Australian shepherd running at full tilt on a beach, tongue out so far it's almost licking on of her eyes, which are different colors (brown and blue).

Thanks, Calypso, for all the love and happiness you gave our family.  We do miss you.    

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fair Use Victory Advances a Future of Accessibility for All

Two days ago, on Tuesday, June 10, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York made a major ruling that emphasizes the legality of fair use for book digitization. In Authors Guild v. HathiTrust, a unanimous three-judge panel concluded that digitizing books in order to enhance research and provide access to individuals with print disabilities is lawful on the grounds of fair use—that is, a limitation and exception to the exclusive rights granted by copyright law to the author of a creative work (Section 107 of the U.S. copyright law). This is an immense victory for fair use as the basis of a balanced intellectual property system, and we, at Benetech, are delighted by it and by its tremendous positive implications for the public interest.

What is this court case and why do we care so much about it? As a non-lawyer, let me explain from the point of view of a technologist who cares passionately about accessibility for people with disabilities.

The HathiTrust Digital Library (HDL) is a partnership of academic and research institutions that had created (with help from Google) a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world. It allows users to search book content that contains a match for their search terms. To most patrons, HDL merely delivers titles and page numbers as results, but the University of Michigan’s Library, one of the HathiTrust members, does allow access to the full text of copyrighted works for people with qualifying print disabilities. In September 2011, the Authors Guild sued the HathiTrust, alleging massive copyright violations. A federal district court ruled against the Authors Guild in October 2012, finding that HathiTrust’s process was fair use under U.S. law. One of the key justifications that the court used was the value of the scanned books for people who are blind, who could benefit so much more from an accessible digital version of a library book (which can easily be turned into braille or read aloud) than from a physical copy sitting in a dusty stack. The Authors Guild then appealed the ruling.

As the parent nonprofit organization of the Bookshare online library, a leading provider of accessible books to people with print disabilities in the U.S., we at Benetech were concerned that the Authors Guild’s arguments in their appeal would remove the legal authorization for the services that we provide, relegating people with disabilities to second-class status. I was an expert witness for the National Federation of the Blind (which had joined HathiTrust as a defendant) in the district court case, and Benetech filed an amicus brief in the HathiTrust appeal case supporting the decision of the district court. You can read more about our position in the Amicus Brief, which we filed jointly with our peer organization, Learning Ally.

Now, a year later, the Court of Appeals agreed: the HathiTrust creates immense public value and its core activities entirely comply with copyright law. They decided that it is fair use both to create a full-text searchable database of copyrighted works and to provide those works in alternate formats that are accessible to patrons with disabilities. Furthermore, they even decided the Authors Guild did not have standing to bring the suit in the first place.

With regards to fair use for accessibility, it is encouraging to see the court citing the historic legislation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, thus advancing a view of fair use that’s consistent with the norms that Benetech has long advocated for. We saw this view underscored in last year’s Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled—an international copyright treaty that would make copyright exceptions for people with disabilities a global norm and allow organizations like ours to share accessible books across national borders.

Given the Court of Appeals’ momentous ruling in the HathiTrust case, Benetech stands on firmer ground than ever as we deliver our Bookshare services under the protection of fair use, in addition, of course, to Section 121 of the U.S. copyright law, also known as the Chafee Amendment. A full explanation of how Bookshare is made legally possible by these two copyright exceptions can be found in my January 2014 post, The Case for Copyright Exceptions and Fair Use.

This fair use victory is crucial not only for our present work, but also for our social mission at large and for the future of our work under our Global Literacy program. In particular, we’re excited about the promise that the appeal court’s ruling holds for the expansion of our efforts to improve access to images. Before this case, I’m not aware that there had been an explicit discussion of the legality of the practice of granting individuals with disabilities access to images in alternate formats. The Court of Appeals explicitly included image accessibility in its ruling. It states the following about the HDL’s digitation process:
The image files will provide an additional and often more useful method by which many disabled patrons, especially students and scholars, can obtain access to these works. These image files contain information, such as pictures, charts, diagrams, and the layout of the text on the printed page that cannot be converted to text or speech. None of this is captured by the HDL’s text‐only copies. Many legally blind patrons are capable of viewing these images if they are sufficiently magnified or if the color contrasts are increased. And other disabled patrons, whose physical impairments prevent them from turning pages or from holding books, may also be able to use assistive devices to view all of the content contained in the image files for a book. For those individuals, gaining access to the HDL’s image files―in addition to the text‐only files―is necessary to perceive the books fully. Consequently, it is reasonable for the Libraries to retain both the text and image copies.

From Benetech’s perspective, this is truly a groundbreaking decision, as we have been working at the frontier of image accessibility through our DIAGRAM Center—a research and development hub dedicated to making it easier, cheaper, and faster to create and use accessible digital images. The imperative to make images accessible to individuals with disabilities is becoming increasingly pressing as digital content is quickly shifting to include richer, more visual components, and is especially critical for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. The DIAGRAM Center’s community is in the midst of efforts to make image accessibility significantly less costly by turning inaccessible images, such as equations in a digital math book, into machine-readable information. Section 121 doesn’t explicitly discuss image accessibility, and we’d been hoping that fair use covers much of the DIAGRAM Center’s work. The appeal court’s ruling has now addressed this and we are much more confident that the legal framework for our efforts will be grounded in the provisions of fair use.

At Benetech, our goal is to advance a world in which the benefits of technology touch the lives of all people, not just of the richest and most able five percent of humanity. No matter what area we work in, we need intellectual property laws that balance the interests of society with those of creators. For this IP system to work for all it’s critical that copyright exceptions such as fair use be defended as a laboratory for innovation. We are delighted that the Court of Appeals has done just that by championing a robust view of fair use that encourages technological advances, rewards creativity, and benefits society. With the leverage of technology and the foundation provided by well thought-out IP laws, we can inspire both economic growth and social good.