Call him the Silicon Valley Samaritan. It might sound corny, but Jim Fruchterman is an experienced and savvy technology entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in engineering and a serious interest in making the world a somewhat better place.

He's also the CEO of Benetech (, a Palo Alto, Calif.—based, nonprofit technology company that specializes in developing products that have viable social applications but not quite enough commercial potential to be attractive to a for-profit company. Benetech is about to launch, an online library of downloadable text and audio-format books aimed at the blind and others with a sight disability. is an effort to supplement the works made available by the Library of Congress's National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and a national organization called Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. These groups produce high-quality audiobooks for the blind and provide scanned digital texts that can be read using synthetic computer voice technology. Combined, the two groups offer about 6,000 titles. Fruchterman maintains that BookShare has the potential to lower the cost of producing these texts and ultimately make tens of thousands of digital audiobooks and downloadable, device-readable texts legally available much faster.

Fruchterman founded Benetech in 1994, using the proceeds from the sale of a company he launched earlier. Benetech has about 15 employees and is also developing applications for the human rights community, talking handheld devices for the blind and other products. BookShare required about $1 million to develop. "We look for products that don't have a big payoff," said Fruchterman. "In fact, if something is socially useful and potentially lucrative, we think a for-profit company should do it. Our projects are small by tech start-up standards," he said, "but large for the nonprofit community."

How does BookShare work? Fruchterman explained that the Copyright Act allows copyrighted works to be copied for use by the visually disabled. As a result, blind and dyslexic readers, and the volunteers who help them, regularly scan books so that they can be read by computer voice technology. By soliciting disabled readers to share their many thousands of scanned text files, can make them available to certified disabled readers (a reader must provide written professional certification of their sight disability) quickly, in a special downloadable digital format that includes DRM protections. The service charges $25 to join and $50 a year.

Fruchterman told PW that the idea was inspired by Napster, the controversial music file-sharing application. But, he quickly explained, it's all legal. Early in BookShare's development, he approached the Association of American Publishers to review his plans. "The AAP has no objections," he said. "We've shared our plans and we have a cordial relationship with them."

Allen Adler, v-p for legal and governmental affairs at the AAP, told PW that while AAP still had concerns about "textbooks and instructional materials" ending up on BookShare, the AAP nevertheless has had "very productive" talks with BookShare. "They were straightforward. They explained the concept; we reviewed the terms of access and I think we've worked out our concerns," he said. But, said Adler, "the proof is in the pudding. We'll have to see how it works out."

The service needs about 10,000 to 15,000 users to break even, and Fruchterman said there was a potential market of disabled readers in "the low millions." He said he expects the service to grow to about 100,000 users in five years. Currently, BookShare is in the public beta-testing stage. The site has several thousand titles, and consumers can download public domain titles. It should go live with copyrighted titles in March.

"This service will help the blind community to help themselves," said Fruchterman.