Blake E. Reid's "The Digital Millennium Copyright Act Is Even Worse Than You Think" is a potted history of the ways that the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has confounded the efforts of disability-rights groups to make media more accessible to people with various disabilities. The Copyright Office holds hearings every three years to establish temporary exemptions to the DMCA, but this has been totally inadequate as a way of dealing with this problem:
I’m a teaching fellow and staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation clinic, where I work on media and accessibility issues. In 2011, my students and I filed a new exemption request on behalf of the nonprofit TDI (which advocates for equal media access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing) to allow researchers to develop advanced closed captioning and video description features to help make video programming more accessible—development hindered by the DMCA. (Gallaudet University and the Participatory Culture Foundation also signed the petition.) Crowdsourcing, customized user interfaces, error correction, and other innovations could help realize the goal of equal access to video programming on the Internet—a goal enshrined by Congress and President Obama in the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010.
But our proposal faced opposition from a coalition of copyright lobbyists who insisted, for example, that errors in closed captions were a “mere inconvenience” to people with disabilities and that developing accessibility features might even constitute copyright infringement. In the end, the librarian issued an exemption, but it was so riddled with caveats that it was difficult to identify precisely what accessibility research it was intended to enable, if any.
We also proposed a general exemption for accessibility technology, urging the librarian to take action in light of the widespread and demonstrated negative impact of the DMCA on the ability for people with disabilities to experience copyrighted works on equal terms. The Copyright Office did not even solicit comment on the proposal, and the librarian effectively ignored it.
Requiring nonprofit disability groups to ask permission from the government every three years and navigate a complex legal minefield to implement urgently needed accessibility technology is not compatible with progressive, conservative, or libertarian values; the goal of equal access for people with disabilities; or common sense. Even the librarian admitted in 2010 that the DMCA exemption process “is at best ill-suited to address the larger challenges of access.”
Especially poignant is the closing quote from Helen Keller: "Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends."