Last updated: Jun 11, 2020
Have you ever downloaded a file that you didn’t have permission to get? I have, many times in the past. This post, about copyright issues faced by blind people, may spark much debate in our community, but I feel that it must be written. It will cover games, books, films, and software which blind people copy, the justifications for doing so, and the harm that it can cause.
It was said, about 50 years ago, that some 70 percent of blind people are unemployed. That fact, as overused as it is, is the number that appears to be the most up-to-date data easily found. My experience is that, indeed, many blind people are still unemployed. This correlates well with illegal copying of files which will be discussed in this article.
As usual with articles I write, I’ll start with defining terms. I call the downloading or sharing of files which the user doesn’t have the right to do so “illegal sharing,” “filesharing,” or “illegal copying.” Most people just call it “piracy,” or “online piracy,” which I find is more of a scare tactic and an attempt to put all the blame on the sharer to further dramatize the alleged crime.
Blind people are in a unique position regarding filesharing. All of our digital entertainment and livelihood is digital data, whether it be books, music, movies, or programs. This can be true for sighted people as well, but we’ll get to why blind people are more likely to illegally download later in this article.
As for me, I have illegally downloaded plenty of material in my teenage years. Now that I have a job and good income, I can afford to buy whatever is available to me, but I write this article remembering when I could not buy, and the people who still do not have the money, or inclination, to buy digital material.
Many people like playing games, and this is true for blind people as well. Before we got computers, I remember playing Uno as a child at the school for the blind I grew up in. When we did get computers, however, I did begin playing games created specifically for blind people, called Audio Games.
I remember downloading one game in particular, and because I had no money, cracking it, meaning that the game was made a full version instead of a demo, without purchasing an activation key. I spent many afternoons after school on that game, and eventually getting into others. Now, I rarely play audio games, focusing on video games instead, which I find, personally, provide more enjoyment.
Video games, however, are also not safe from illegal copying. I’ve downloaded many video games, new and old, without purchasing them. From Mortal Kombat to Skullgirls, I’ve downloaded many video games when audio ones weren’t enough. I no longer have the illegally downloaded copies.
I, however, am not the only one. Recently, the audio games forum has begun inforcing rules about linking to illegal sharing sites or files, and there has been some backlash and discontent regarding such a policy. Users have threatened to leave, site addresses have been censored, and filesharing has most likely been pushed even further into private or less formal locations. However, there are those less formal locations for such a reason, away from a public forum.
Reading is something that blind people have enjoyed, with independence, ever since the adoption of braille. Reading became even more widespread with the introduction of audio books, chiefly lead by the National Library Service (NLS), which basically gives blind and print disabled people free braille or audio books. The downloadable audio books are protected by a special key delivered by the NLS server, so one cannot simply listen to the book outside of NLS’ apps. This service, however, has not proven to be enough for some readers.
There are many ways for a person to consume the written word, and many devices to do it on. The NLS BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) app is only available on iOS and Android mobile devices, and perhaps can also be made to work on Chromebooks using the Android app. This means that if a user prefers to listen to books while on a computer, he or she will need to find a book from elsewhere without restrictions on usage. The NLS also may not have a reader’s favorite narrator. Audible books, however, are quite expensive, leaving the user to illegally share that book. Readers may also want to simply read a book on their computer using a screen reader. If one does not have a subscription to Bookshare, then Epub books must also be illegally downloaded if the reader does not have the money to buy them.
There is also a great service called Graphic Audio, which creates a dramatized audio play of books, with a full cast, sound and music, and abridgment of some nonessential scenes. These titles can be very entertaining, but are also costly if one wants to listen to an entire series. On the other hand, they also have frequent discounts up to 40%, so one can take advantage of those. Even then, these titles often are illegally shared as well.
Many blind people do watch television and movies, although I usually do not. I have done so in the past, however, and remember getting plenty of films’ audio files with descriptions of visual content added. This “described” television is very popular with completely blind people, who want to participate in today’s culture.
There are a few sites online today which provide no video content, but simply audio files containing the film’s audio track, with the described content added on. These provide the same level of access that a DVD would that contains description, but with a much smaller file size. I thought nothing, during my teenage years, of sharing this to friends simply by copying a folder full of described content onto flash drives, and the same is done over the Internet today.
Streaming content subscriptions have become today’s Cable subscriptions, and many blind people have simply signed up for one or two of those. Almost all of them provide at least some description in their content, and Apple TV Plus has provided it since its launch last year. However, some blind people still share this content with descriptions, in order to not pay a monthly subscription along with more essential needs.
Blind people may not be the majority of software filesharers, but sighted people have not, in the past, needed to pay $10,99 for a software package to access their screen. Indeed, while free options, like NVDA, are gaining in ability and popularity, JAWS for Windows is still more customizable. In the last year, Freedom Scientific has offered a subscription plan: JAWS and updates for $100 per year, but they still cannot compete with free, which continues to net NVDA more users. Now, however, more and more blind people are able to do what they need on mobile devices, which include a screen reader out of the box.
I’ve said on some occasions that Text-to-speech voices are for blind people what fonts are for sighted users. We may like different voices for different contexts, and there isn’t one voice that clearly beats any competition. Many voices that we use now sound more natural, but do not quite have the rhythm and intonation of speech correct. Older voices may sound more robotic, but also more smooth, and even if a word is mispronounced, it is pronounced the same way every time. One of these older, and more popular, speech engines is Eloquence. Some blind people do not like it, but many others do. There is only one problem: it hasn’t been updated since the early 2000’s.
Eloquence is known most for being the voice that JAWS has used for many years. It was also used in Window-Eyes and many other screen readers, and is also usable on Linux and was recently abandoned on Android. Years ago, Nuance, the owners of the popular Vocalizer voices, bought Eloquence, but have done nothing to update ot, or offer it directly to customers. A few companies have tried to offer legal versions, but the one I was gifted, a version which works directly with NVDA, does not work even as well as unofficial, illegally shared versions. In fact, after a restructure of NVDA broke compatibility with the legal version, an unofficial version was made to work before a new version of codeFactory’s was released.
Blind people may even fileshare entire operating systems. In order to experience Apple’s MacOS operating system without having to buy a Mac or get a taxi to the nearest Apple Store, users download a virtual machine containing MacOS to try, or even use long term, on a Windows computer. This may extend a user’s access to services which may be inaccessible or hard to use on Windows.
Justifications of Filesharing
Many blind people are poor. We look for jobs, but some people can’t find one that they are confident in doing no matter what. Family members may hold young adults back from looking for a job for overbearing reasons. Government agencies may not respond to calls for help, and Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are unlikely to hire just any blind person, no matter the few success stories.
This means that blind people do not have the money to buy products, or if they receive supplemental income, they, or their parents, use it for food, rent, and other necessities. Of course, this simply means that more jobs must become accessible to blind people, and government organizations should implement more outreach to people with disabilities who seek employment. This does not mean that the government should pay for a blind person’s entertainment and digital access, however. I believe that people with disabilities need jobs, not more government money.
Blind people may feel that, because they do not have a job, and aren’t likely to get one, that because filesharing is possible and easy, they are entitled to get content. These people may illegally download material, even if they have extra income as well, as they feel entitled to it. They don’t usually hang out in public forums, preferring more private areas of the Internet.
Some content may not be available for purchase. This includes games which must be emulated to provide accessibility. I, for example, love playing dissidia Final Fantasy. This game can be made accessible using OCR technology which finds text in graphical content like games, and is built into most screen readers. I can read the menus, battle information, and unspoken character dialog, but only on a computer, as the Playstation Portable didn’t have any accessibility tools. I worked around this by buying the game on the Playstation Network store, then downloading the game file from elsewhere, as the PSN store doesn’t allow downloading the purchased PSP game.
This will become harder to work around, however, as older games may become accessible using other methods. For example, where would one legally purchase a digital copy of a Super Nintendo, Sega Megadrive, or Gameboy game? Emulation, in this case, is used to add accessibility to a game, and not for the express purpose of simply having a free game. Most gamers, however, just download the game files, ROM’s, without regard to buying it. Many developers may not mind users downloading 8 or more year old games.
The harm of illegal downloading
What if you wrote a book, and sold it, but months later it was sold using slightly different names? That is what happened to a few developers of audio games. Called “clones,” these games used the same programming, but slightly different music and names for items.
I believe that filesharing can lead a community to other, more noticeable problems later on, including cloning. If people do not think that they should have to pay for things which entertain them, they may find other things acceptable too. This may not effect those who are simply too poor to pay for content, or those who try to ethically fileshare, but will effect those who feel entitled to content.
Filesharing may also drive away mainstream developers from public forums. As mentioned on the audio games forum, if mainstream developers of video games see that we illegally copy books and movies, they may wish to not lose sales of their own games to the filesharers of our community.
A third problem with illegally downloading deals with developers in our own community. If they do not make money, they may not feel that developing general programs like book reader apps, or games for us isn’t worth it, so we may have one less accessible program to use. This isn’t to say that all software created by blind developers is worth it; some games and apps are pretty awful. I do say, however, that we should always reward good creativity, and that goes for all creators of content and programs.
In this article, I have discussed the controversial topic of filesharing among blind people. We illegally copy just about any type of content available, although music subscription services have made filesharing music not as prevalent. There are justifications that people may make, and harmful effects that the community should be aware of.
So, my readers, what are your thoughts? Do you fileshare your way through books, films, and software? Do you have enough money to spend on entertainment and software you need? Do you feel that you shouldn’t have to buy software and media? Please, let me know your thoughts, anywhere you can submit them. I’m always eager for feedback on the articles I write. Thanks again for reading them!
Also, if anyone has ideas or articles they’d like me to host, please feel free to let me know. I will seriously consider all suggestions for topics to write about.