by Christopher Gray

In 1998, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) made its collection of braille books in electronic format available to eligible borrowers over the Internet through a program called Web-Braille. Blind and visually impaired people could browse among thousands of titles and download books to their braille-aware devices such as BrailleNotes, PAC Mates and Braille Senses, or emboss them and read them in hard copy.

Beginning in 2004, Web-Braille was used to make large numbers of braille music titles similarly available. This was a great service to library patrons and we in the ACB, individually and collectively, applauded NLS for their accomplishment.

On May 11, NLS announced on the Web-Braille web site that "Because of technical and security difficulties, Web-Braille will be unavailable in the near future. NLS regrets the inconvenience and will provide further information as soon as possible."

While the nature of the "technical and security difficulties" has yet to be officially explained, it is clear that the leadership at NLS is concerned about possible violations of "fair use" in the Chaffee Amendments of the U.S. copyright laws.

Web-Braille files are prepared in a special braille format called "BRF" files, fully translated into contracted braille and formatted in the same way they appear in NLS hard copy braille titles or as embossed on braille paper. These files can only be downloaded by registered eligible users who have been issued the proper username and password by a cooperating NLS network library.

Each day that Web-Braille is down, blind children are being denied access to braille books that are in limited supply; those who are deaf-blind are restricted from accessing a primary source of reading material; and libraries are being forced to engage in additional shipping of hard copy braille books, adding to their operational expenses.

While we understand that NLS must be responsible when it comes to complying with copyright law, we believe that they have taken precipitous and unwarranted action in restricting access to Web-Braille, and have taken an extremely narrow interpretation of "fair use," thus negatively impacting the patrons they are pledged to serve in accessing reading materials.

As a longtime devotee of audio recordings (in both analog and digital environments) and having worked in both the mainstream and adaptive technology fields, I know that any individual, whether sighted or blind, can easily acquire and use the technology necessary to convert files from one format to another, including from BRF e-text files to MP3 audio files. The world relies on the good will of end users not to abuse this ability. Certainly, users of Web-Braille have honored that commitment for the past eight years. We will not stand by and see our access to information denied on the basis of "it might be done someday."

ACB calls on NLS to reinstate Web-Braille immediately while continuing to work on acceptable procedures that are not burdensome to borrowers, while assuring compliance with copyright law. To our knowledge, Web-Braille has not been abused by those who it is intended to serve, and registered borrowers and the blindness community as a whole should not be punished as if they have violated the law.

I ask all ACB members to contact their elected representatives in Congress today in Washington, D.C. and ask them to use their influence with NLS and its director Frank Kurt Cylke to urge the immediate restoration of Web-Braille access to registered users. Congress should also take this opportunity to clarify and assure that "fair use" for blind and visually impaired citizens includes Web-Braille and similar projects.

In addition, feel free to express your concerns to NLS Director Frank Kurt Cylke at [email protected] or at 1-800-424-8567. Let me assure you that this narrow interpretation of the law can endanger other services being provided by both public and private organizations wishing only to bring the joy of reading to all of us. The pressure you can bring on NLS and Congress is all that stands between you and restored equal access to the written word.

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