Thursday, June 16, 2011

Our WIPO Statement on the Treaty for Access for People with Disabilities

Statement of Benetech to the
22nd Session of the
Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights

at the World Intellectual Property Organization
June 15, 2011, Geneva, Switzerland

• Greetings from California’s Silicon Valley! I’m a high tech engineer and the founder of Benetech, one of Silicon Valley’s leading nonprofit technology companies, dedicated to seeing that the benefits of technology help all of humanity, not just the richest 10%
• As a nonprofit charity, we focus on areas of market failure, where regular for-profit companies have decided that the market opportunity for a given product is not large enough
• One of our best-known programs is the Bookshare library, the largest online library of accessible books in the world, a library dedicated to serving the one or two percent of the population with a severe print disability
• Since I last spoke to this body less than one year ago at SCCR20, the Bookshare library has grown from serving 100,000 people with print disabilities, to over 140,000. Our collection has grown from 70,000 books to almost 110,000 books in the U.S.
• This rapid increase in our collection size has been due to extensive support from publishers: the majority of new books added to Bookshare last year and this year have been voluntarily provided to us by 130 publisher partners in the U.S., Canada, Europe and India. These include 6 of the top 10 publishers in the U.S.
• These publisher agreements have also included permissions to distribute books outside the United States: most frequently, we are provided global rights. Now, more than 30,000 current copyrighted books are available globally on Bookshare to thousands of users.
• As a result, we are increasingly working with other disability organizations in other countries to extend Bookshare’s ability to serve people with disabilities. For example, all residents with the qualifying disabilities in Australia, Denmark and Qatar, to pick just three examples, now have free access to Bookshare thanks to our joint efforts with local and national disability groups in these countries. Bookshare now has hundreds of titles in Hindi, Tamil, and Spanish, and we recently announced a partnership with the government of Qatar to develop an Arabic language service.
• Bookshare has successfully piloted an international library for the blind, but we’ve barely begun to remedy the global book famine.
• Wonderful as our licensing partnerships with publishers are, they are not enough to make accessible most of the books that people with disabilities need to have equal access to education, employment and social inclusion.
• In the United States, like a number of countries, we have a copyright exception that allows our organization to make accessible versions of the books our disabled patrons need. We have spent years making arrangements with 130 exceptionally responsible publishers, but our copyright exception has allowed us to make books available from thousands of publishers. We think this exception has worked extraordinarily well in the U.S.: helping people with disabilities while not hurting, and almost certainly helping, authors and publishers
• This is why we are in strong support of the World Blind Union’s advocacy and many nations’ support for a global treaty to help people with print disabilities. We would like to see a global norm comparable to the system that has worked so well in the U.S. extended to help all people with print disabilities in the world who need it. Thank you!

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Benetech board member, Robert Wexler

Our Nonprofit Legal Expert Continues to Offer Wise Advice

My last post mentioned our recent Benetech board meeting. This seemed like a great moment to introduce our newest board member, Robert Wexler.

Rob has a deep understanding of what makes nonprofits successful. He’s a principal at Adler & Colvin, San Francisco's top law firm specializing in nonprofit law. His practice focuses on tax and corporate matters for nonprofits and their donors. Rob is also a lecturer at Stanford Law School where he teaches the Law of Nonprofit Organizations.

Rob has helped Benetech navigate important transitions over the years including providing critical legal advice during the sale of the Arkenstone product line in 2000, including expanding our charter from just working on disability issues to a wider range of social issues (now including human rights and the environment). Proceeds from the sale of the Arkenstone reading machine for the blind provided the capital to fund Benetech and launch many new technology projects that serve humanity. As part of the Arkenstone sales, Rob also helped us create a wholly owned for-profit subsidiary to protect our nonprofit status (by having a taxable subsidiary handle unrelated business income, the nonprofit parent was better protected). Rob also helped me with my recent essay in the Spring 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, For Love or Lucre that offers practical guidelines for social entrepreneurs who want to start for-profit or nonprofit companies.

Rob is committed to the success of social enterprises. He has served as a board member and officer on several nonprofit boards and has donated his time for the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco. I particularly have appreciated his help with the SF chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance, a national organization I helped found and am now the immediate past chair. He's also been part of the effort to propose the Flexible Purpose Corporation here in California, an effort I strongly support to allow for-profit corporations to add a social purpose into their basic organizational charter.

We will look to Rob for advice and guidance as Benetech continues to explore new technologies that help empower underserved communities. We are fortunate to have his experience, intellect and deep dedication to innovative social change on Benetech's governing body!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Human Rights at the Benetech Board Meeting

The centerpiece of our Benetech board of directors meeting this week was the Benetech Human Rights Program. Each of our quarterly meetings tends to focus on big strategic issues facing Benetech. Last quarter Betsy Beaumon presented the future of our Literacy program including Bookshare. Next quarter will be our new projects meeting, where we talk about the pipeline of new ideas for Benetech social enterprises. But this week, human rights was front and center.

Patrick Ball giving a powerpoint presentation, the slide on the screen behind him entitled There's a Lot to DoPatrick Ball, our Chief Scientist and VP of the Human Rights Program, spent a couple of hours with our board talking about the big strategic questions for the HRP. He talked about the opportunities and challenges he sees ahead, especially as technology tools continue to be adopted by more of the human rights community, from cell phones to Facebook.

Our human rights program has many important moving parts:
  • Improving the science of human rights statistics
  • Doing major projects to help a country figure out what happened in the last ten or twenty years of civil wars
  • Helping both academics and prosecutors get data usable for their needs
  • Building technology tools like Martus for capturing human rights violations data
  • Talking to high tech companies about how their policies help and/or hurt the cause of human rights
  • Training new scientists in our methods (increasingly our alums are taking on major projects for other major human rights programs)
  • Talking to journalists and documentary film makers about how to protect their data in the field
  • Training human rights groups all over the world on how to collect and secure their data for maximum impact on improving human rights
All of this is of course through the lens of serving the human rights movement: Benetech's HRP is all about helping human rights groups achieve their goals of defending and advancing respect for human rights. If the groups we're working with don't succeed, then we don't succeed.

Selection bias was one of Patrick's core scientific topics: the tendency of humans to believe that the information they get represents the big picture. One hypothetical example of this issue that came up in the meeting was SMS traffic after a large earthquake and tsunami. You might think that the amount of traffic corresponds to the places that would have the most damage. But, it might well have been that the places with the greatest damage had no power for the phone system, or people were too busy with the aftermath of the disaster, compared to more mildly affected cities with power and relatively little damage (but people texting like crazy to say they are ok). How do we help decision-makers and the press get a better handle on what we know and don't know, and prevent people from leaping to the wrong conclusions (and by extension, taking the wrong actions)?

We're lucky at Benetech to have very smart and engaged board. And, I think our board felt good about investing the time to engage in such an intellectually stimulating topic of immense importance.

Friday, June 03, 2011

George Hara: Public Interest Venture Capitalist

Longtime Beneblog readers may remember my visit five years ago to Bangladesh, where I was able to visit and write about a cool tech social enterprise, bracNet. They were going to bring Bangladesh better wireless internet than exists in California, and they’ve done it.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with one of their main funders, George Hara, in San Francisco. George is a financial mastermind with one foot in Asia and the other in California. Public Interest Capitalism is his personal brand of social change. A longtime venture capitalist with his DEFTA Partners firm, he wants to help solve social problems using hybrid capital structures that meld nonprofit and for-profit partners. He uses the Alliance Forum Foundation as one of his vehicles for making deals along these lines in Asia and Africa. He's written several papers on his approach, including this one entitled Retooling Capitalism.

bracNet is one of these hybrid ventures, joining a majority for-profit ownership led by DEFTA Partners with BRAC, Bangladesh’s largest social enterprise organization. BRAC can use its tax-exempt dividends to fund public service projects related to bracNet’s wireless internet connectivity (or for other public purposes, as it decides).

In our conversation, George and his team outlined ways to use this hybrid approach for expanding social impact in Africa as well as new ideas for enterprises for following up on natural disasters in Asia for sustaining positive change after the immediate humanitarian response.

It was a pleasure for me to make the connection with a cool technology play, and see that it was also a cool hybrid financial structure.