Digital equality over copyright for the print-disabled

Dr Paul Harpur from the TC Beirne School of Law, explores the hurdles faced by people with print disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia and quadriplegia in his new book, Discrimination, Copyright and Equality – Opening the e-Book for the Print-Disabled.

The law must do more to help people with print disabilities achieve reading equality.

Dr Harpur says that the print disabled are in the midst of a ‘book famine’ despite new equality laws and innovations in technology.

“In theory, technology has opened up access to the written word,” Dr Harpur said.

Dr Paul Harpur

“Adaptive technologies like e-books, iPhones, and e-readers have revolutionised the way the print disabled can consume content. When you factor in anti-discrimination and human rights laws, there’s no good reason why anyone should be denied access.

“Unfortunately, copyright concerns usually beat out equality of access. For instance, a lot of core textbooks aren’t available as e-books because publishers want people to pay for content and limit students illegally sharing material with their friends.”

The print disabled are a small, often economically disadvantaged minority, so publishing houses and media outlets pushing for tough copyright laws to tighten access can have a stronger influence on government.

As a result, about five to seven percent of all published books are available to those in developed countries, and less than one per cent are accessible to those in the developing world.

Discrimination, Copyright and Equality – Opening the e-Book for the Print-Disabled examines domestic and international copyright and equality laws, with a specific focus on Australia, the USA, Canada, and the UK.

“Each jurisdiction has strengths and weaknesses because there are pro-access groups pushing for more access and less regulation, and vice versa,” Dr Harpur said.

“In Australia, we have an anti-discrimination act which has its own set of issues.

“Anti-discrimination law doesn’t impose any duty on publishers to make their books accessible except at the end user stage. This means universities have an obligation to provide equality of access to books for their students, but publishing houses don’t because they have no contractual relationship with the end user – the students.”

Copyright is important but we need to find new ways of protecting copyright and facilitating access.

Dr Harpur, who lost his sight at age 14, says the book – his first – is a by-product of similar struggles he faced as a student.

“As a high school student all the way through to my PhD, I found my limited access incredibly frustrating and disabling,” he said.

“E-books weren’t available so I had to scan books myself or ask other people to read them for me. Usually I got them weeks after everyone else, and had to scramble to catch up.”

Challenges aside, Dr Harpur says he remains optimistic about the future of digital equality.

“My book maps legal rights in this exciting new landscape and shows how laws can help this dream of equality of access become a reality,” he said.

It’s encouraging to see clear leaders in this space. One example is the USA, where the law states that all prescribed books from K-12 to university must be available in digitally accessible formats.

Institutions like UQ are also doing their part to help.

“When I started here in 2011, there were very few e-books available to me. Now, the UQ library has about 823,000 print books and around 3.75 million e-books,” he said.

“There is always room for improvement but if you had told me a few years ago that our current reality was possible, I would have thought you were crazy.”

Dr Harpur recently made headlines when Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten promised to launch a Royal Commission into the abuse of people with disabilities, answering a call made by Dr Harpur and 100 other Australian academics in an open letter sent to the Prime Minister’s office on April 7.

Media: Dr Paul Harpur,, 0417 635 609; Alysha Hilevuo,, 0428 884 097

Last updated:
8 June 2017