Sunday, February 22, 2009

ammado, An exciting new platform for social involvement

I recently had a great meeting with Terry Farris and Alan Keliipuleole of the newly launched ammado web platform. It’s an impressive web-based application for helping multi-national corporations engage their employees and customers in social sector activities such as volunteering or donating. It’s the brainchild of an Irish tech entrepreneur, Peter Conlon. I know Terry because he was UBS’ point guy on philanthropy in Singapore and Asia before joining ammado.
ammado with colored bar logo and tagline creating heroes
The challenge around something like this is critical mass, and the ammado team seems to be aiming very high in terms of execution. The site already works in a dozen languages and support for giving in more than twenty currencies. So, a high tech company with operations all over the world can engage their employees in each country to get involved with local charities, operate matching gift programs and so on. They also have a charitable gift-card concept for employees or customers (buy $250 of product, get a $10 or $20 gift card for your favorite charity).

I’m just delighted to see technology being used to encourage this kind of involvement. Companies that take advantage of this kind of technology are going to be more competitive in recruiting and retention of employees, and fare better with customers. I just read a great article by David Altschuler entitled the Scrooge Effect, and he used the example of Wal-Mart. Over the last two years, Wal-Mart has made huge efforts to engage socially and change their image from being a Scrooge. Has it ever paid off for them (their stock is one of the few ones up over the last year)!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bookshare’s Status as an Authorized Entity under Section 121

Section 121 of the Copyright Act, also known as the Chafee Amendment (17 U.S.C. Section 121), defines a special class of organizations known as authorized entities. Quoting from the statute:
"authorized entity" means a nonprofit organization or a governmental agency that has a primary mission to provide specialized services relating to training, education, or adaptive reading or information access needs of blind or other persons with disabilities
Bookshare represents that it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that has a primary mission to provide the specialized services defined in Section 121. Bookshare is in continual contact with the Association of American Publishers to maintain the publishing industry’s input into its activities as an authorized entity, routinely submits copies of its standard user licenses, policies and conditions to AAP’s General Counsel for comment, whenever there is any significant change in them, and works closely with the publishing industry to ensure continuing compliance with Section 121 and the regulations thereunder. Dozens of publishers and authors have signed contracts with Bookshare that confirm and support its work as an authorized entity as well.

Bookshare actively cooperates with the Library of Congress in the provision of Bookshare’s services to people with disabilities, through its National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS). NLS provides Bookshare with confirmation of qualification for Section 121 services for people already registered with the Library of Congress. In addition, the Library of Congress is the agency responsible for issuing regulations supporting Section 121.

Finally, the Office of the General Counsel of the Department of Education reviewed Bookshare’s status as an authorized entity as part of the awards process for the Bookshare for Education project. The Request for Proposal specified that only an authorized entity could receive an award in that competition. The subsequent cooperative agreement award by the Office of Special Education Programs is a confirmation of Bookshare’s authorized entity status.

Together, these facts should be helpful for educational institutions and their legal counsel in permitting institutions to avail themselves of the services funded by the Department of Education, and to be comfortable with the legality of those services under copyright law.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Struggle for Book Access (Blog Post #1)

I’ve been watching with interest the legal controversy over the synthetic speech capability of the new version of the Amazon Kindle, such as the coverage on Boing-Boing entitled Author's Guild claims text-to-speech software is illegal. I think it’s time to write a series of short essays on the struggle for accessible books, starting with this brouhaha.

This isn’t a new issue. George Kerscher and I wrote a major essay on the topic seven(!) years ago entitled the Soundproof Book. In it, we pointed out the irony that the first generation of ebook readers being inaccessible to blind people. This irony continues: it’s a terrible shame that Amazon (and other ebook device vendors) keeps putting out ebook products that are inaccessible to the blind! More on that in another essay. The essence of the Soundproof Book essay was the dueling moral high grounds: author’s rights vs. the right to access. Since these are both generally good from society’s standpoint, how do you handle the conflict between them?

It’s easy to dismiss the authors’ concerns (as many have in the tech community) as greedy or Luddite. But, you have to realize that authors get the short end of the stick in the publishing business (not that there is that much stick to go around in the publishing industry!). There are very few authors making the big bucks. Most authors get very little money from their work and every new thing that pops up seems like one more thing chipped away from them. There have been occasions where new technology was introduced and the publishers made the money and the authors did not get a share. So, don't be surprised when the authors put up their hand and say "what about me?"

When we launched Bookshare, we had a similar interaction with a major authors’ association, the SFWA. We proudly told them that we had cleared Bookshare with the publishers: wrong move! Many of their members (science fiction and fantasy authors) hate publishers. It took us a while, but we were able to negotiate an agreement with the SFWA to reconcile our competing moral high grounds. The essence of it from our side was to show heightened respect for authors: to recognize that authors have moral interests in their works and how they are disseminated. For example, if an author comes to us concerned about the quality of one of their books on Bookshare, we’ll allow them to review the copy and if it has mistakes we’ll pull it until they are fixed. And in exchange, the SFWA encourages their members to voluntarily give Bookshare their content (high quality files remove/greatly reduce the danger of errors creeping in).

Unfortunately, it’s too late for the authors to make much headway on their argument, which is that allowing purchasers of ebooks to have them read aloud by synthetic speech trespasses on the audio rights for their books. Thanks to a legion of people who care about usability and access, ebooks have more and more enabled great flexibility in presentation. You can easily set the Kindle to make the text size larger. Does that violate the large print rights? Ebooks on PCs have had text-to-speech capabilities for years (although not always enabled). Years of practice both in general markets and especially in the disability market have recognized that synthetic speech is something that can be done when you have text. The National Federation of the Blind came out with a strong statement objecting to the author position: admitting the authors’ argument would set blind people and disability access back years.

Another key argument is distribution. Amazon isn’t distributing an audio book: it’s distributing a text ebook (which they have the rights to do so and authors get compensated for, one assumes). The Kindle having text-to-speech is a presentation option, not a format of distribution. If people starting taking audio versions of their Kindle books and distributing them, they would of course be violating copyright. But that has nothing to do with whether distributing text ebooks is a violation of the separate rights for an audio book.

Author Neil Gaiman put forth similar arguments in his Journal, which I appreciate.

The ship has sailed. Authors are making their money (although probably a pittance) on the books being sold through Amazon, which is generally a good thing. Trying to roll back this minor technological advance is going to fail, and there really is no opportunity to extract an additional rent here, however deserving authors are of increased appreciation by society.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Bookshare around the world

Bookshare is doing great. Launching the new version of the website has been exciting, and I was happy to see a great blog post on the new capabilities from the National Braille Press' blog.

We're also on a roll on many other fronts.

We recently obtained the ability to directly download books from the national accessible textbook repository for those states who appoint us to do that for the disabled students of their state.

Our staff are all over the country and the world spreading the word. While I was at the ATIA conference in Florida, our Director of Marketing was in Washington DC at another conference. Betsy Burgess got to run into Senator Harkin, who exclaimed "I love Bookshare!" For someone working in the disability field, hearing that (even secondhand!) from the number one disability advocate in the Senate was a thrill!
Senator Harkin and Betsy Burgess
But, it's not just in Washington DC. We have social enterprises all over the world doing book proofreading for Bookshare. One of our partners is in Kenya, and I recently was sent their holiday party pictures.

Daproim is an example of a cool social enteprise.

And, they're doing great work for us in Kenya, a country that has tremendous potential and needs to advance past the challenges of the last year.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

TED thought for Benetech: health care education material and Bookaccess

One of the main reasons for attending TED is to get new ideas for Benetech and for the Raising the Floor movement. Although our efforts on RtF are mainly around serving people with disabilities, we are open to thinking more broadly about how these technologies could benefit more people. After all, that's the whole point of universal design!

I ran into a Stanford MBA student at TED, Joy Sun. She had been working in public health in Africa before heading to Stanford. I questioned her about how technology could help the health field, and she quickly came up with where she thought maximum leverage could be applied: helping those who are students in the health field get access to the content/textbooks they need. She described a nursing school in Luanda (I think, could have been Lusaka) that lacked textbooks or journals, and had weak PC infrastructure. But, all the students had cell phones.

Bing! I see an immediate overlap with the work we're doing with Bookshare and a new concept we've been talking to publishers about: Bookaccess. Bookaccess is where people with disabilities get their electronic books at reasonable prices, and the publisher makes some money. This is unlike Bookshare, which is for the 1-2% of the population who qualifies for the copyright exemption. But, if the publisher is making money, and we're able to deliver an electronic book, why not deliver medical education content via the cellphone to nondisabled, but economically disadvantaged people?

Of course, people are already doing some of this, but we have to go a lot further.

And, Joy supplied my TED insight for the day. Thanks, Joy!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

This week at TED

I'm spending the week at the TED2009 conference, bylined The Great Unveiling. The last TED conference I attended was TED2, which was more than 20 years ago!

Many people are aware of both the social focus and high quality videos that come out of TED. As a public speaker in the technology and social sectors, I think that TED represents the top of our craft. It's nonstop great talks, performances and presentations, from people at the top of their game. Yesterday was an amazing start on the week, hearing from Bill Gates, Al Gore, Seth Godin and many others mixed in with a fabulous vocal group (Naturally Seven) and my favorite, Regina Spektor. The MIT Media Lab showed off some really exciting technology that I immediately was thinking of disability applications.

Many (most? all?) of these presentations will end up on the web soon.

And, the networking is also great (because of who the performances attract). It's a place to plant seeds for future collaborations. Well, I need to head off to get my brain packed with another day of cool ideas. I'm glad Jeff Skoll kept asking me if I was going to TED: now I know why!