Of Cows, Captions and Copyright: Users Need the Right to Caption and Subtitle Videos for Access and Learning

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues

Disclaimer | Digesting grass | Digesting videos | Video and text | Read-Write culture and tools | Universal Subtitles | Copyright hits the fan | Lessig’s plea | Other obstacles |Solution?


Non scientists should refrain from using scientific concepts as metaphors. I am fully aware of this, and actually, when a sociologist or other humanistic scholar thus hijacks terms or phrases like “black hole,” “big bang,” “DNA,”  etc., I skip his/her text if possible.

Nevertheless, what little I understand of how the cellulase enzyme works for ruminants has been very instrumental  in my first perception of how captioning videos helps all users digest their content, and underlies what I have written here so far about captioning. Hence the decision to come out explicitly with this subjective and uninformed perception of  it.

Digesting grass

Cows can digest and assimilate the grass cellulose because they ruminate it, but not only: humans could  chew and re-chew grass for hours and hours, yet they would still excrete its cellulose whole without assimilating any because we lack  something cows have: the cellulase enzyme that chops up the molecules of cellulose into sugar types so that they can be assimilated Continue reading

UNESCO, World Anti-Piracy Observatory and YouTube

Accessibility 4 All by Claude Almansi


Continue reading

Live Radio Captioning for the Deaf

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks to:

  • Sylvia Monnat, director of captioning at Télévision Suisse Romande (French-speaking Swiss television www.tsr.ch) for the explanations she gave me by phone on live captioning through re-speaking.
  • Neal Stein, of Harris Corporation (www.harris.com), for the authorization to publish on YouTube the video excerpt shown below, and for his explanations on the US live radio captioning project.

Why Caption Radio?

Making radio accessible for deaf and hard of hearing persons is not commonly perceived as a priority. For instance, the new version of the Swiss law and ordinance on Radio and Television that came into force in 2007 does add several dispositions about accessibility for people with sight and hearing disabilities but does not mention captioning radio. See art. 7 [1] of the law and art. 7 [2] and 8 [3] of the ordinance (in French). According to most non-deaf people’s “common sense,” deaf persons don’t use radio – just as many non-blind people still believe that blind people can’t use computers.

Yet deaf persons are interested in accessing radio content through captioning, as Cheryl Heppner, Executive Director of NVRC [4], explains in this video:

The video is from the January 8, 2008, I-CART introductory press conference at CES 2008. The full video can be downloaded from www.i-cart.net. Transcript of the above excerpt:

I’m one of 31 million people in the United States who are deaf or hard of hearing. A number that continues to grow. NPR Labs and its partners are on the verge of making many of my dreams come true. Beyond having that really crucial emergency information, captioned radio could also open up a world I’ve never had, because I lost my hearing before my seventh birthday.

When I am stuck in Washington’s legendary Beltway gridlock, I could check the traffic report and find out why, what my best route would be. I could check the sports scores and follow the games for all my favorite teams. I could know why my husband is always laughing so uproariously when he listens to “Car Talk.” And I could annoy him by singing along badly to the lyrics of his favorite songs.

I can’t wait. Thank you.

NPR’s Live Captioned Broadcast of Presidential Election

The work by NPR Labs and its partners, mentioned by Cheryl Heppner in this January 2008 conference, led to the broadcasting of live captioned debates on NPR during the US election campaign a few months later. The assessment by deaf and hard of hearing people of this experiment was extremely positive. According to the press release “Deaf and Hard of Hearing Vote Yes on New Radio Technology During NPR’s Live Captioned Broadcast of Presidential Election” (Nov. 13, 2008) [5]:

  • 95% were happy with the level of captioning accuracy, a crucial aspect for readability and comprehension
  • 77% said they would be interested in purchasing a captioned radio display unit when it becomes available
  • 86% indicated they would be interested in purchasing a “dual-view” screen display for a car (which would enable a deaf passenger to see the captioned radio text while the driver listens to the radio).

How Are Radio Captions Transmitted?

A digital radio signal can be divided to transmit audio and text, and the text can be read on the radio display. In fact, text messages are already being sent micro4_serviceon car radio displays through Radio Data System (RDS). For instance, this is how the Swiss traffic information service Inforoutes updated drivers in real time – or almost – about the state of traffic jams due to work in the Glion tunnel in 2004. (See “Service,” in French, on page 4, in the May 2004 newsletter of Les Radios Francophones Publiques [6].)

The radio devices used in the experience conducted by NPR Labs and its partners that Cheryl Heppner mentions have a bigger display. For the exact technical explanation of how the captions work, see the presentations section of www.i-cart.net.

Stenocaptioning vs. Respeaking

The NPR experiment mentioned above used “stenocaptioned,” i.e., they were written with a stenotype [7] whose output gets translated into captions in normal English by computer software. Live stenocaptioning – whether for news broadcasts or for in-presence events in specially equipped venues – seems to be the preferred solution in countries such as the US and Italy that have a tradition of stenotyping court proceedings or parliamentary debates.

In most other European countries, according to Ms. Sylvia Monnat, director of captioning at Télévision Suisse Romande (French-speaking Swiss TV – www.tsr.ch), broadcasters tend to prefer “respeaking,” which works with speech-to-text technology: the software gets trained to recognize the voice of respeakers, and then converts what they repeat into captions.

Ms. Monnat further explained that, on the one hand, the advantages of respeaking involves training. In fact, countries without a stenotyping tradition do not offer courses for it, whereas existing interpretation schools can arrange respeaking courses since it is a normal exercise in the training of conference interpreters. Moreover, respeaking is easier to learn than stenotyping.

On the other hand, it takes time to, first, train the speech-to-text software to recognize the respeakers’ voices and, second, to add words not present in its basic thesaurus for each respeaker’s voice. Moreover, enough respeakers have to be trained so that one whose voice is recognized by the software will be available when needed. Whereas once a new word has been added to the thesaurus of the stenocaptioning software, it can be used by any stenocaptioner.


The fast evolution of technology makes it difficult to foresee the issues of live captioning, even in the near future. Radio and television are merging into “multimedia broadcasting.” And, in turn, the line between broadcasting and the internet is gradually fading (see the HDTV offer by internet providers). Speech-to-text technology will probably continue to improve. Mutimedia devices are also evolving rapidly.

However, the response of the deaf and hard of hearing people who participated in the NPR Live captioning experiment seems to allow one safe surmise: live radio captioning is here to stay, whatever the means it will use tomorrow.


Further information on live captioning can be found in the online version of the “Proceedings of the First International Seminar on Real-time Intralingual Subtitling” held in Forlì, Italy, on Nov. 17, 2006 [8].

This and other online resources mentioned here have been tagged “captioning” in Diigo and can therefore be found, together with resources added by other Diigo users, in www.diigo.com/tag/captioning.

Three Video Captioning Tools

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

First of all, thanks to:

  • Jim Shimabukuro for having encouraged me to further examine captioning tools after my previous Making Web Multimedia Accessible Needn’t Be Boring post – this has been a great learning experience for me, Jim
  • Michael Smolens, founder and CEO of DotSUB.com and Max Rozenoer, administrator of Overstream.net, for their permission to use screenshots of Overstream and DotSUB captioning windows, and for their answers to my questions.
  • Roberto Ellero and Alessio Cartocci of the Webmultimediale.org project for their long patience in explaining multimedia accessibility issues and solutions to me.
  • Gabriele Ghirlanda of UNITAS.ch for having tried the tools with a screen reader.

However, these persons are in no way responsible for possible mistakes in what follows.

Common Features

Video captioning tools are similar in many aspects: see the screenshot of a captioning window at DotSUB:


and at Overstream:


In both cases, there is a video player, a lst of captions and a box for writing new captions, with boxes for the start and end time of each caption. The MAGpie desktop captioning tool (downloadable from http://ncam.wgbh.org/webaccess/magpie) is similar: see the first screenshot in David Klein and K. “Fritz” Thompson, Captioning with MAGpie, 2007 [1].

Moreover, in all three cases, captions can be either written directly in the tool, or creating by importing a file where they are separated by a blank line – and they can be exported as a file too.

What follows is just a list of some differences that could influence your choice of a captioning tool.

Overstream and DotSUB vs MAGpie

  • DotSUB and Overstream are online tools (only a browser is needed to use them, whatever the OS of the computer), whereas MAGpie is a desktop application that works with Windows and Mac OS, but not with Linux.
  • DotSUB and Overstream use SubRip (SRT) captioning [2] while MAGpie uses Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL) captioning [3]
  • Overstream and Dotsub host the captioned result online, MAGpie does not.
  • The preparation for captioning is less intuitive with MAGpie than with Overstream or DotSUB, but on the other hand MAGpie offers more options and produces simpler files.
  • MAGpie can be used by disabled people, in particular by blind and low-sighted people using a screen reader [4], whereas DotSUB and Overstream don’t work with a screen reader.

Overstream vs DotSUB

  • The original video can be hosted at DotSUB; with Overstream, it must be hosted elsewhere.
  • DotSUB can also be used with a video hosted elsewhere, but you must link to the streaming flash .flv file, whereas with Overstream, you can link to the page of the video – but Overstream does not support all video hosting platforms.
  • If the captions are first written elsewhere then imported as an .srt file, Overstream is more tolerant of coding mistakes than DotSUB – but this cuts both ways: some people might prefer to have your file rejected rather than having gaps in the captions.
  • Overstream allows more precise time-coding than DotSUB, and it also has a “zooming feature” (very useful for longish videos), which DotSUB doesn’t have.
  • DotSUB can be used as a collaborative tool, whereas Overstream cannot yet: but Overstream administrators are planning to make it possible in future.
  • With DotSUB, you can have switchable captions in different languages on one player. With Overstream, there can only be one series of captions in a given player.

How to Choose a Tool . . .

So how to choose a tool? As with knitting, first make a sample with a short video using different tools: the short descriptive lists above cannot replace experience. Then choose the most appropriate one according to your aims for captioning a given video, and what are your possible collaborators’ availability, IT resources, and abilities.

. . . Or Combine Tools

The great thing with these tools is that you can combine them:

As mentioned in my former Making Web Multimedia Accessible Needn’t Be Boring post, I had started captioning “Missing in Pakistan” a year ago on DotSUB, but gone on using MAGpie for SMIL captioning (see result at [5] ). But when Jim Shimabukuro suggested this presentation of captioning tools, I found my aborted attempt at DotSUB. As you can also do the captioning there by importing a .srt file, I tried to transform my “.txt for SMIL” file of the English captions into a .srt file. I bungled part of the code, so DotSUB refused the file. Overstream accepted it, and I corrected the mistakes using both. Results at [6] (DotSUB) and [7] (Overstream) . And now that I have a decent .srt file for the English transcript, I could also use it to caption the video at YouTube or Google video: see YouTube’s “Video Captions: Help with Captions” [8]. (Actually, there is a freeware program called Subtitle Workshop [9] that could apparently do this conversion cleanly, but it is Windows-only and I have a Mac.)

This combining of tools could be useful even for less blundering people. Say one person in a project has better listening comprehension of the original language than the others, and prefers Overstream: s/he could make the first transcript there, export the .srt file, which then could be mported in DotSUB to produce a transcript that all the others could use to make switchable captions in other languages. If that person with better listening comprehension were blind, s/he might use MAGpie to do the transcript, and s/he or someone else could convert it to a .srt fil that could then be uploaded either to DotSUB or Overstream. And so on.

Watch Out for New Developments

I have only tried to give an idea of three captioning tools I happen to be acquainted with, as correctly as I could. The complexity of making videos accessible and in particular of the numerous captioning solutions is illustrated in the Accessibility/Video Accessibility section [10] of the Mozilla wiki – and my understanding of tech issues remains very limited.

Moreover, these tools are continuously progressing. Some have disappeared – Mojiti, for instance – and other ones will probably appear. So watch out for new developments.

For instance, maybe Google will make available the speech-to-text tool that underlies its search engine for the YouTube videos of the candidates to the US presidential elections (see “”In their own words”: political videos meet Google speech-to-text technology” [11]): transcribing remains the heavy part of captioning and an efficient, preferably online speech-to-text tool would be an enormous help.

And hopefully, there will soon be an online, browser-based and accessible SMIL generating tool. SubRip is great, but with SMIL, captions stay put under the video instead of invading it, and thus you can make longer captions, which simplifies the transcription work. Moreover, SMIL is more than just a captioning solution: the SMIL “hub” file can also coordinate a second video for sign language translation, and audio descriptions. Finally, SMIL is a W3C standard, and this means that when the standard gets upgraded, it still “degrades gracefully” and the full information is available to all developers using it: see “Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL 3.0) – W3C Recommendation 01 December 2008 [12].

Making Web Multimedia Accessible Needn’t Be Boring

claude80By Claude Almansi
Guest Author
7 November 2008

Some people see the legal obligation to follow Web content accessibility guidelines – whether of the W3C or, in the US, of section 508 – as leading to boring text-only pages. Actually, these guidelines do not exclude the use of multimedia on the web. They say that multimedia should be made accessible by “Providing equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content” and in particular: “For any time-based multimedia presentation (e.g., a movie or animation), synchronize equivalent alternatives (e.g., captions or auditory descriptions of the visual track) with the presentation.”[1]

This is not as bad a chore as it seems, and it can be shared between several people, even if they are not particularly tech-savvy or endowed with sophisticated tools.

Captioning with DotSUB.com

Phishing Scams in Plain English, by Lee LeFever[2], was uploaded to DotSub.com, and several volunteers did the captions in the different languages. The result can be embedded in a blog, a wiki or a web page. The captions also appear as copyable text under dotsub“Video Transcription,” which is handy if people discussing the video want to quote from it. Besides, a text transcription of a video also tends to raise its ranking in search engines, which still mainly scan text.

The only problem is that the subtitles cover a substantial part of the video.

Captioning with SMIL

This problem can be avoided by captioning with SMIL, which stands for Synchronized Multimedia Interaction Language. A SMIL file, written in XML, works as a “cogwheel” between the original video and other files (including captioning files) it links to and synchronizes.[3]

The advantage, compared to DotSUB, is that captions stay put in a separate field under the video and don’t interfere.

This is why, after having tried DotSUB, I chose the SMIL solution for: “Missing in Pakistan – Sottotitolazione Multilingue.[4]

So far, the simple text timecoded files for SMIL captioning still have to be made off-line, though Alessio Cartocci – who conceived the player in the example above – has already made a beta version of an online SMIL captioning tool.

Captioning with SMIL Made Easy on Webmultimediale.it

The Missing in Pakistan example is on Webmultimediale.org, the site where the WebMultimediale project team experiments with the creative potential of applying accessibility guidelines to online multimedia – for instance, in collaboration with theatrical companies.

web_multiHowever, the project also has a public video sharing and captioning platform, Webmultimediale.it, where everyone can upload a video and its captioning file to produce a captioned video for free. The site is fairly bilingual, Italian-English. By default, you can only upload one captioning file, but you can contact Roberto Ellero, the founder of the project, through http://www.webmultimediale.org/contatti.php if you wish to add more captions.

Webmultimediale.it also has a video tutorial in Italian on how to produce a time-coded captioning file using MAGpie, which is only accessible when you are signed in, but as it is in Italian, English-speaking users might prefer to use the MAGpie Documentation[5,6] directly.

Other Creative Potentialities of SMIL

As can be seen in the MAGpie Documentation and in the W3C Synchronized Multimedia page[3], SMIL also enables the synchronization of an audio description file and even of a second video file, usually meant for sign language translation. While these features are primarily meant to facilitate access to deaf and blind people, they can also be used creatively to enhance all users’ experience of a video.