Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I Need a Good Lawyer

No, we’re not being sued (and we want to keep it that way). However, the time has come when we need a really smart attorney to join Benetech and help us navigate the intersection of technology and social good.

Benetech has some of the juiciest and most exciting range of legal challenges I can imagine: the great majority of our legal work concerns intellectual property and human rights. We’re operating at the forefront of copyright limitations and exceptions, both in the United States and globally. We serve human rights activists in more than 100 countries. We’re deep believers in the benefits of openness, which means we publish open source software and create open content under Creative Commons licenses. We are consulted by policymakers, legislators, rightsholders, companies and activists for our insights. We’re not an advocacy organization, but our technical insights are in great demand from advocates.

We get a huge amount of pro bono assistance from the legal profession, both because of our social impact as a nonprofit, and because of the challenging and interesting issues we tackle. Many of our projects turn on legal questions, and our attorneys are a core part of figuring out solutions that will have real positive impact on society. We rely on free licenses to proprietary content and software, and typically get a “Yes!” from the majority of IP owners we approach. After all, they’re proud of their creations and would love to see them benefit disadvantaged people and communities, where regular market forces would fail to go.

Until now, we’ve operated with purely pro bono help in the form of two attorneys on our board. We are now looking for a half-time general counsel to join our team and manage the host of legal issues we are always investigating. The deep reservoir of pro bono resources provides elasticity for an enterprising and agile counsel who can make the choices of which issues to handle solely inside, mainly with outside counsel, or blended. Right now, we have multiple law school clinics that would love to tackle new projects with us, projects we actually have but lack the bandwidth to pursue.

Of course, part of the role is the bread-and-butter work of a nonprofit GC: day-to-day transactions, reviewing our 990, providing counsel to our senior team and board. But, I expect that 75% of the job will be about analyzing the legal issues from our programs, especially in our Global Literacy Program, which includes Bookshare, the largest digital library for the blind and dyslexic in the U.S., as well as our Human Rights Program, which supports activists fighting injustice around the world. Here’s a sampling of the kinds of projects on our current list:

  • Operating an open repository of image descriptions to assist blind and other disabled people to access the information locked up in images, especially in education (big fair use question here). 
  • The recent Indian copyright amendment that creates an exception similar to Section 121 in the United States, which makes it possible for us to set up a Bookshare-style crowd-sourced library in India with local partner NGOs. 
  • How to legally minimize the import duties on tablets and smartphones that are donated to us in the U.S., when we bring them to developing world countries. 
  • Digital signatures for parents/guardians wanting to sign up their children with disabilities for Bookshare. 
  • Human Rights Program policies: what are contingency/crisis plans for our staff? 
  • An intellectual property manual done from the standpoint of an organization that is dedicated to openness, rather than proprietary approaches. 
  • The DMCA 1201 ruling on ebook access through DRM circumvention was clearly aimed at us: should we take up the challenge? 
  • The new WIPO Marrakesh Treaty for the Blind: we were an integral part of the team advocating for it, and how do we make it real as the leading library for the blind with global ambitions? 
  • Authors Guild vs. HathiTrust. I was an expert witness in the case, and we’ve filed an amicus brief in the appeal. What’s next? 
  • Should we establish an affiliated, minority-interest benefit corporation, to better obtain R&D funding for tech for social good projects? 
  • Volunteerism: what happens when we engage volunteers outside the United States and expand the range of tasks we do inside the U.S.? 
  • Benetech Labs: what are our intellectual property policies on Labs projects if we host projects proposed by third parties? 
  •  Will we act as a fiscal sponsor, something we’ve avoided to date? 
That’s just a taste of what’s on the plate at Benetech. If you’re a wicked smart attorney with intellectual property chops and a track record of being interested in social good, please consider throwing your hat in the ring!

Will you be my lawyer, please?

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Objecting to Accessibility Weaseling

Last week, the National Federation of the Blind and 22 organizations serving people with disabilities filed detailed objections to a petition from a group of makers of e-reader devices led by Amazon to be exempted from accessibility requirements under the relatively new Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. Benetech was a proud endorser of these objections (under our legal organizational name of Beneficent Technology, Inc.).

You might ask: why would an organization that in many ways provides a competitive alternative to e-readers object to e-readers being exempted from accessibility requirements? Wouldn't that create more demand for our Bookshare online library?

It sure would create more demand for Bookshare in the future, but our primary goal is not to sustain Bookshare, although we will as long as Bookshare is needed. Our primary goal is to ensure that people with disabilities get equal access to the books and content they need for education, employment, leisure and social inclusion. We think the best long-term way to solve this equal access problem is, well, equal access. We think that people with print disabilities should be able to get their books the same way people without disabilities get them. And, increasingly, that means through inexpensive e-readers like the Amazon Kindle.

People with print disabilities are the most natural customers in the world for digital versions of books. It is supremely ironic that they have been systematically locked out of that content over the last decade through: 
  • collateral damage: technology designed to defeat piracy stopping accessibility technology,
  • rights confusion: publishers turning off text-to-speech access because of authors' claims (which I think are pretty bogus) that these are covered by audio rights, not print rights, and
  • active neglect:  leading example is Amazon continually committing to accessibility and then leaving it out of most new Kindle products

Betsy Beaumon, the general manager of Bookshare, has coined the label Born Accessible.  She wants to see every piece of content that is born digital be born accessible. We all want the same ebook that people without disabilities buy (sorry, I mean license) to work perfectly well for people who are blind, physically disabled or dyslexic. If we and the publishing industry succeed in this, then libraries like Bookshare will gradually move to filling the same kind of secondary role that public libraries fulfill for the general public: access to books for those too poor to purchase them, or for those who need to do research and don't care to purchase every book they consult.

That's why we're happy to stand in solidarity with NFB and our peers in the disability and accessibility worlds. If this attempt by Amazon and their peers to weasel out of accessibility requirements built into U.S. civil rights laws succeeds, people with disabilities will be yet again be denied equality.