Online Piracy, Deviance and Audio Description

A person in a dark hat and trench coat peers down at two computer monitors. They are wearing a white mask, hiding their identity. The room is dark, and smoke floats in the air.
CC image by Brian Klug

For people with disability, living on the edges of deviance can be a daily experience and often an unintended consequence of their identity.

The relationship between entertainment industries and the disability community is fraught at best. People with disability continue to be blocked from easy and ready access to entertainment materials despite widespread legislation at both national and international levels to ensure inclusivity and accessibility.

Paul Harpur and Nicolas Suzor affirm that “there are over 129 million book titles in the world, but persons with print disabilities can obtain less than 7 per cent of these titles in formats that they can read.” (Read more in their article: Copyright Protections and Disability Rights.)

Copyright law has been crucial in enabling and blocking access to materials for people with sight impairment.

Special accommodation must be made for a print-based text to be converted into an accessible format for people with disabilities. In 1996, the United States introduced an amendment to enable copyrighted material to be converted into an accessible format. In 1997 a similar act was introduced into Canada. There is no comparable statute in Australia.

Harpur, Suzor and Thampapillai affirm that “there is no broad exception in Australia for reproductions made by or on behalf of a person with a print disability, but there is a statutory licensing scheme contained within Pt VB of the Copyright Act” that allows for an institution operating on their behalf to produce these texts. (Read more in their article: Digital Copyright and Disability Discrimination.)

Importantly, in an age of global entertainment media and international markets items are not transferable to other markets. A text converted under United States law may not be permitted to be sold outside of its national borders. This is particularly discriminatory in the era of the sharing economy and the rise of digital transferable content and social media sites, which have proven to be of great use in the sharing of information and resources among the disability community.

The model of restricting media product to specific markets within a global economy (geo-restriction) is heavily mirrored in the delivery of video on demand services like Netflix and Stan. Due to copyright legislation and licensing agreements, as well as local governance, Netflix libraries, for example, vary greatly between national contexts.

This is significant for people with sight impairment for example, where facilities like audio description are unevenly activated in variant national contexts. While captioning is standard in many broadcast regions, audio-description has a less prescriptive presence on mainstream productions.

On Netflix, it has only been since the production of Daredevil in 2015 and as a result of widespread outrage from audiences that the company committed to integrated audio-description protocols on all its own product. However, despite this commitment, the majority of Netflix content is sourced from other mainstream broadcasters. Only about 8% of programming is Netflix originals. It then becomes exponentially difficult for people with disabilities to ascertain which programmes or films on the schedule have audio description, and for people who live in places where audio description is not mandated or is uncommon, it is almost impossible.

uNoGS – the unofficial Netflix online Global Search – is a search engine for all Netflix libraries developed by prosaically named ‘Brian’ for personal use. However, its searchable database has become incredibly popular for users to track what is available on Netflix in any market across the globe.

Users can then bypass market restrictions through the use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to trick Netflix into thinking the user is from that national market. What is crucial about uNoGS is its highly customisable search engine.  Users can simply click on the audio-description category to search for audio described content. uNoGS even assists users with suggestions about the best VPN or proxy service to provide access. At best, this system is dubious and walks a thin line of legality.

In 2016, Netflix launched efforts to block customers who used the service at the behest of licensees. While Netflix’s commitment to tracking down and limiting so called ‘proxy-pirates’ appears a little lack-lustre, this effort to criminalise or demonise the users of uNoGS appears to unfairly target people with disability who lack not only a plethora of audio described content, but also the means to easily and effortlessly discern which texts have the description track available (in an era where it is not always mandated that audio-description be provided).

For some time, there have been whispers within the disability community about an underground and illegal search engine for audio-described content. It was spoken of in hushed tones as users secreted their transgressions, but also sought to assist other people searching for audio-described content in a country that does not have it on mainstream television (Australia).

uNoGS walks this line, providing a service that is essential for people who need audio described content, but also potentially criminalising these people as they seek accessibility in an era where the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities affirms the global disability community’s access to the media as a human right.

It is unnecessary that people with disability be criminalised for seeking out entertainment content that is their right to have access to.


Paul Harpur and Nicolas Suzor, “Copyright protections and disability rights: Turning the page to a new international paradigm,” University of New South Wales Law Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3, 2013, pp. 745 – 778, p. 745

Paul Harpur, Nicolas Suzor and Dilan Thampapillai, “Digital copyright and disability discrimination: From braille books to bookshare,” Media & Arts Law Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2008, pp. 1- 16, p. 1

M. L. Wayne, “Netflix, Amazon, and branded television content in subscription video on-demand portals,” Media Culture and Society, 2017, pp. 1 – 17, DOI: 10.1177/0163443717736118, p. 8

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