Librarian of Congress Says "Yes" to Blind Hackers and an Afterward on Objectivity

On Thursday November 23, I read an article in my Blind News folder called, “US permits phone-cracking and DVD copying exemptions to copyright law,” from the UK based, PC Pro – London.  Today, I received another about the same decision by our Librarian of Congress called, “U.S. blind people are now permitted to circumvent any DRM on electronic books,” from the same publication.  Why I haven’t found this in a US based publication yet puzzles me but I suppose decisions by the Library of Congress get trumped by the oh-so fascinating gossip stories about Britney and her possible divorce.  Also, it was a holiday week and I suppose all the real journalists were gorging themselves on Turkey while stringers filled the pages of our newspapers with random bits of information they pulled off of the wire services.

The first article states, “The Librarian of Congress, James H Billington has granted six exemptions, the most ever, and for the first time has exempted groups of users en masse, including phone recyclers and people working on computer security,” from a variety of laws governing copy protection. “The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which introduced several strict copyright protections into US law, stipulates that every three years the Librarian examines the need for any exemptions and acts accordingly.”

Among exemptions permitting anyone to break the software lock on a mobile phone and use their device with any carrier and for film history education programs to break the copy protection on DVD recordings, “blind people are now permitted to circumvent any DRM on electronic books, so that they can use tools such as text-to-speech software to read them.”

The librarian of the world’s greatest library continued, “This is not a broad evaluation of the successes or failures of the DMCA.  The purpose of the proceeding is to determine whether current technologies that control access to copyrighted works are diminishing the ability of individuals to use works in lawful, non-infringing ways.’

The article continues, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said it was disappointed that calls for an exemption that would have allowed the copying of DVD content so that it could be transferred to devices such as an iPod were rejected, but nonetheless welcomed the changes,” continued the article.

Blind Confidential also welcomes the changes and, while I can’t say if I care whether or not I can copy a DVD to an inaccessible toy from Apple, I am very happy to hear about the exemption on e-books.  I eagerly anticipated their arrival back when e-books were mostly a concept for the future, as, rather stupidly; I made the assumption that they would automatically be accessible to us blinks.  It turned out I was very wrong.

I haven’t read the text of the librarian’s statement yet so I don’t know if it applies to digital e-books that contain mostly text and are usually read with an Adobe, Microsoft, Sony or other product or if this means that digital talking books, from for instance, should also be liberated for use by people with impairments that prevent them from using textual content effectively.

All I can do is suggest to my blind hacker friends out there, whip out SoftIce and get cracking.  I will provide a $25 reward to the first blind person who sends me a crack to the e-book content sold on Barnes and Noble’s web site (  To qualify, you must include your source code so we can post it on for others to use as an example and to encourage the community to enhance and broaden its features.

Yes folks, the revolution starts now!

Afterward: My Lack of Objectivity

I’ve done a lot of soul searching in the past week or two and have concluded that I can not be truly objective when discussing specific brands of screen readers and, thus, Blind Confidential readers should read anything I say about specific screen readers with a grain of salt.

I worked at HJ/FS for six years and still use JAWS daily.  I have a lot of friends who work very hard on JAWS and are deeply dedicated to making it as good as possible.  Thus, when I talk about JAWS, it feels a little like I’m talking about my own family, I’m either over critical as I see the flaws too intensely or over praising as I enjoy seeing features added and improvements made over time.

On the other side of the coin, GW Micro and Window-Eyes competed hardest against us while I worked on JAWS.  I, therefore, spent a lot of time thinking of it as the competition which I must destroy (if you are going to play in a competitive capitalist world, you better play to win).  Thus, after six years plus of thinking of them as the enemy, I continue to hold some of the ideas about which I tried to brainwash the entire blind world with (many of which are true) when I talked about Window-Eyes in the past.  As a result, I can’t be even close to objective about GW Micro or Window-Eyes.  I will say, though, I’m happy their latest beta has a JAWS Compatibility mode so, when I do check it out from time to time, I won’t need to try to learn a different set of keystrokes every time I look to see some feature GW has added that I think sounds cool.

As a matter of full disclosure, I had also sent GW Micro a resume before I sent one to HJ.  I was actually a Window-Eyes user back then.  No one from GW even acknowledged receipt of my resume and HJ sent me a plane ticket for a trip to Florida, put me up at a hotel, had Joe Simparosa take me out to dinner and offer me a damn good job.  Thus, I still hold a bit of a grudge against GW for this too.

As go the GNU/Linux screen readers for the gnome desktop, I don’t have a PC around that runs gnome so can only comment on the things I read and the technical documentation in the accessibility API.  As for Apple, I’ve had so many battles with their corporate practices that I’m sure I will never have a truly clear thought about their business.  Thus, Gabe, go ahead, tell the world, “I told you so,” as BlindChristian has now officially admitted for all to see that I have a strong anti-Apple bias and cannot speak to their products with anything resembling clarity.

I do my best to try to remain objective when discussing System Access but I also readily admit that Mike Calvo, Serotek CEO, is a close personal friend and that I really root for him and his products to be successful.  Maybe if they gain a huge level of cash flow, he’ll hire me as a consultant or something and I can live off of his largess for a while.

As for HAL, I’ve never run the program for more than 10 minutes.  It seemed to have a confusing keyboard layout but, as I am so intimate with the one in JAWS, all keyboard layouts seem a bit confusing when you get down to it.  I have also, on the few times we’ve communicated, always really liked Mike Hill and think he’s a real smart guy so assume his work must be pretty good as well.

I think Thunder, the $0 scriptable screen reader and NVDA, the newly announced free (with source included) screen reader, are both interesting but will take a lot of time to mature.  I find the Thunder license a bit confusing and definitely prefer the one NVDA is using.  My only qualm with NVDA is that it is written in Python and I’m not sure how well blind programmers can work in an environment that has strict indentation rules.  If you are a blind Python hacker, please send in a comment and tell us how you get along with it.

So, I mostly use JAWS these days.  JAWS has features that none of the others have.  While it is possible to use VisualStudio .Net 2005 with other Windows screen readers, none come even close to the usability that blind hackers get using JAWS with the scripts written by the gang on the blind programming mailing list (link above).  No other screen reader for Windows does Java at all.  One might ask who cares about Java?  My answer is nearly any college student who wants to study computer science as Java has replaced C and Lisp as the primary programming language in computer science programs around the scholarly world.  Whether you like Java or not, if your screen reader doesn’t support it, you can’t do your Computer Science 101 homework and, therefore, you can’t move onto the more advanced computer science classes and get a degree in CS and get a really high paying job as a programmer where, in all probability,  you will need to use a screen reader with VisualStudio to program in Windows or with Eclipse to write Java programs and, thus, a screen reader that does not support Java or VisualStudio as well as JAWS does with the excellent scripts written by the community (demonstrating the power of why having a scripting language rather than just relying on an API for information is so important) I don’t really think you can call your screen reader a fully professional product as many professionals and students hoping to enter my profession are held back by lack of access to the tools they need to do their jobs by your screen reader manufacturer’s decision not to invest in Java or to provide a scripting language so you and your friends could provide the access you need for yourselves.

I think System Access has some awesome features and, without releasing any secrets, I will also say that I’m really excited about what I think Mike and Matt will do with it in the future.  I’m really happy to see that Peter Korn has come to the realization that an API, even a great API, will never replace a scripting language and I am looking forward to using ORCA in the future.  I really look forward to seeing what the community can do with NVDA, the first truly GPL screen reader for Windows and I look forward to the future as the lines between access and mainstream technology blur, life as a blink in the wired world will undoubtedly improve.

— End.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

One thought on “Librarian of Congress Says "Yes" to Blind Hackers and an Afterward on Objectivity”

  1. This post is really interesting; so far, i haven’t seen such outrageous news out there, although i had some of these ideas already in the bac of my mind (that is, the legalization of such protection removals for books, dvd’s, ETC). As for soft ice, haven’t had much luck with some of its accessibility. I started learning python recently, but unfortunately I am not able to get the little editors (idle, nor the python win editor) to work properly. Personally, I love the command line for testing out different bits and pieces of code and am actually interested to know if there is a way to save python programs from the commmand line interactive prompt. The graphical user interfaces are not and will never be the best ones for accessibility.

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