2001 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2001 Table of Contents

Bookshare.org - Ebooks for and by People with Disabilities

Jim Fruchterman
The Benetech Initiative


Electronic books (Ebooks) hold terrific promise for people with disabilities that make reading standard printed books difficult. Less than 1% of all books are easily available in accessible media today. Ebooks promise much greater access in the future. A new digital talking book standard provides a format for such books, but few titles are available today. Many libraries for the blind around the world in the DAISY Consortium are committed to bringing out many more ebooks, but this process takes time.

Bookshare.org offers a novel way to jumpstart the availability of ebooks, and uses people with disabilities as the critical element to make this happen. Roughly 50,000 people and organizations are using optical character recognition (OCR) scanning systems to scan books and other documents not otherwise available to people with disabilities. Scanning a book takes several hours, and proofreading the scanned text can add several more. Today, this process is repeatedly done on the same books, because there is no easy way to share the results of this labor. Bookshare.org changes this, by providing an easy way to share these scanned books that is expressly permitted under U.S. copyright law.

Bookshare.org is the first adaptive technology project to be announced by Benetech, the nonprofit successor to Arkenstone. Using the proceeds of the sale of the Arkenstone product lines to Freedom Scientific, Benetech plans to create new nonprofit ventures that address unmet needs for adaptive technology. Bookshare.org builds on the Arkenstone experience and extends the efforts of many thousands of Arkenstone users (and other OCR system users) by joining these efforts together for mutual benefit. The goal remains the same: increase the access of information to people with disabilities for education, employment and personal interests.

Legal Requirements

Bookshare.org will provide an internet-based mechanism to allow users with reading disabilities and the organizations that serve them to legally share books and other copyrighted documents. It will include the necessary controls to protect against misuse by non-disabled persons. Bookshare will meet the requirements of the relevant section of copyright law, 17 U.S.C. § 121:

Bookshare.org will be based on electronic digital talking book standards and copyright law recognizes electronic formats as a specialized format for the disabled. Braille books and four-track audiocassettes are the most commonly recognized specialized formats in use over the past thirty years. With the introduction of the new digital formats, tape formats will eventually become obsolete.

Bookshare.org will control the format of the materials it provides and ensure the appropriate copyright notices are in its digital publications. Access will be restricted to disabled individuals and other authorized entities. Digital rights management will help ensure that access remains limited to those covered by the copyright law exemption.

Qualified Users

Only blind or other persons with disabilities that affect their ability to access print, or organizations serving them, such as schools, will be permitted to download copyrighted books. Bookshare will follow the same procedures and standards now in use by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS). A Bookshare user will have to register and supply a signed certification completed by an appropriate professional in the field of disability services education, medicine, psychology or a related area. The certifier must be a recognized expert who can attest to the physical basis that limits the applicant’s use of standard print. Appropriate certifying experts may differ from disability to disability. For example, in the case of blindness and visual impairments, the appropriate certifier may be a physician, ophthalmologist, or optometrist. In the case of learning disability, a neurologist, learning disability specialist, or psychologist with a background in learning disabilities may be the most qualified certifying professional.

As an alternative, if the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress, or other approved entity, has already certified a potential Bookshare member, we will accept proof of receipt of these services as sufficient to qualify a user.

Copyright Notice

In order to comply with the copyright law regulating the provision of accessible books to people with disabilities (17 U.S.C. § 121), Bookshare will ensure that all copyrighted materials will bear a notice that any further reproduction or distribution in a format other than a specialized format is an infringement. Such content will include a copyright notice identifying the copyright owner and the date of the original publication.

Digital Rights Management

Bookshare.org will implement a seven-point digital rights management program to ensure that books provided through the service are used solely for access for people with disabilities and not for uses prohibited by copyright law. The copyright law exception is a valuable privilege for people with disabilities, and by protecting the rights of authors and publishers we help maintain support in the publishing industry for accessibility efforts. The seven-point plan includes the following steps:

Solution Description

Bookshare.org will provide a vast web-based library of low cost scanned books. Individuals in the reading disabled community scan thousands of books and periodicals into electronic formats everyday. Bookshare.org will provide a central place for these publications to be gathered and shared.

Bookshare.org will not guarantee the quality of the books it provides because it is relying on the disabled community to produce books by scanning. However, with the Napster experience as an example, this method should produce a library of tens of thousands of books and periodicals shortly after Bookshare.org is launched.

Many of these publications will be carefully proofread, providing high quality full text, with structure and audio. The great majority, however, will simply be scanned books, redistributed in a digital format. Compared to investing three hours to scan a book, as each of thousands of disabled people do daily, the opportunity to instantly get a book equal in quality to a personal OCR scan will lower a major barrier to access.

The following scenario is only one example of how Bookshare.org might deliver publications.

Blind high school senior, Joan, has to read a novel assigned by her English teacher. She checks to see if it's available from NLS or RFB&D and finds that it is not. Joan then logs into the Bookshare.org site, by entering her user name and password. She is admitted because she earlier went through a process of proving to Bookshare.org that she is a bona fide person with a disability by providing proof of services from NLS.

Joan then searches for the book. She finds that there are three versions of the book available. One has been created by a community college in Texas and is marked as being proofread. The other two versions are marked as raw OCR scans, which means that they will have errors from the character recognition process. She picks the proofread version, which is transferred from a Bookshare.org server to her home PC. Using her personal encryption key, Joan unlocks the book for her personal use. Joan now can navigate the book in one of several talking software applications on her computer.

Book Formats

The book format provided through Bookshare.org will be based on the DAISY/NISO ebook format. This is an XML standard that will be usable with a wide variety of adaptive technology software. Bookshare.org plans to implement its books to be readable by all the leading screen reading (JFW, WindowEyes, Connect Outloud) and text reading programs (such as OPENBook and WYNN and similar programs). For Braille readers, a grade II Braille extension using the BRF format is expected to be implemented.

The DAISY/NISO standard supports a range of ebook content. Talking book libraries are currently focused on providing mainly audio-recorded books combined with structure information such as the table of contents and/or page numbers. This builds on the high quality programs in place at such organizations as RFB&D, with accessibility mainly provided through human narrators reading the text of the provided books.

Bookshare.org will be providing ebooks without human narration. Instead, the ebooks will contain the scanned text of a printed book. This approach relies on the user having a text-to-speech product such as those mentioned above to read the text aloud, or a Braille product to present the text in Braille. In addition, many Bookshare.org books will contain OCR scanning errors and only page numbers for structure. It is important to realize that Bookshare.org books will generally not be as high quality as those books available from talking book libraries. However, Bookshare.org provides a valuable option for people with disabilities through its service:

Bookshare.org ebooks will be available in minutes, not days or weeks

Bookshare.org ebooks should be available for many more titles

Bookshare.org ebooks should be as good or better than scanning the book personally

For organizations with the responsibility to provide accessible materials, such as educational institutions, Bookshare.org offers an incredibly cost-effective way to collaborate with schools across the state or country.

Consumers Served

Bookshare.org will serve people in the United States who meet the requirements of copyright law. A survey sponsored by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS) found that two million persons with some type of visual impairment may be eligible and an other million with physical conditions such as paralysis, missing arms or hands, lack of muscle coordination, or prolonged weakness could benefit from the use of reading materials in recorded form.

We estimate that there are 100,000 eligible individuals who actively utilize computer technology to access publications. These individuals, coupled with the organizations that provide accessible materials to those with the above disabilities, will serve as the core of the Bookshare.org user base. Such organizations include the state, local and federal educational system, the rehabilitation system, and specialized non-profit agencies.

Because the copyright law exception that Bookshare.org is relying upon is currently a U.S. copyright law exception, Bookshare.org will not be available to users outside the United States.

Financial Model

Bookshare.org has modest financial requirements, since a web-based service powered by volunteer/users offers tremendous cost savings. The current plan is to offer Bookshare.org as a modestly priced subscription service to qualifying users and the organizations that serve them. There will also be the opportunity for financially disadvantaged users to earn reduced fees by providing scanned books or proofreading services. The financial objective for Bookshare.org is to be operating at break-even after two years of operations, to ensure its long-term viability to provide its services to the disabled community.


The Internet is revolutionizing many business processes. Bookshare.org takes advantage of the Internet’s capabilities to experiment with a new way of providing accessible books to people with disabilities. Because of the immense investment already made by tens of thousands of Arkenstone users over the past decade, Bookshare.org expects to receive uploads of fifty thousand books or more in its first two years of operations. This will create a valuable resource for people with disabilities, in the form of a huge ebook collection that reflects the reading priorities and interests of a large cross section of readers. Please watch for the launch of Bookshare.org in the second half of 2001 by visiting the Bookshare.org site!<

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2001 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings

Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.