The Kindle TTS Issue

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How the Controversy Arose

On February 9, 2009, Amazon, Inc., released a new version of its popular e-book reader, the Kindle 2, which included text-to-speech technology.  This technology, long used by people who are blind or have print disabilities, uses automated synthetic speech to vocalize text.  The print-disabled community was encouraged by this development, since we have long advocated that manufacturers of mainstream products make their devices fully accessible to all Americans and, in particular, that devices that display digital information, offer that information aurally and or tactilely as well as visually.

 Potential E-Book Reader BelowShortly after the Kindle 2’s release, the Authors Guild, as an organization that represents some writers, protested Amazon’s deployment of text-to-speech on the Kindle 2.  The Authors Guild argued that reading a book out loud, as occurs with the Kindle, requires the specific permission of the copyright holder.  It also expressed a concern that text-to-speech could inhibit the development of the market for audio books.  On February 24, 2009, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Roy Blount, Jr., president of the Authors Guild, which escalated media attention on the issue.

In response to increasing pressure from authors and publishers, Amazon announced on February 27th that it would modify its system so that authors and publishers could turn off text-to-speech on a title-by-title basis.  The removal of text-to-speech and the stance of the authors and publishers on this issue is discriminatory, is a form of censorship, and is bad business.

Because of the severe implications for the blind, who largely rely on text-to-speech to access information, the National Federation of the Blind through its counsel, Daniel Goldstein, initiated a dialogue with Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, to discuss the effect of its actions on the print-disabled community and the market benefits that would flow to the authors if it welcomed the 15 million new customers who cannot consume or easily consume print books.   Books Aren't Just For Looks, etcIn response Mr. Aiken proposed a separate registration system for people with print disabilities, whereby a blind or print-disabled person would register as disabled and receive a code that would override the disablement of text-to-speech on the Kindle 2.  After consulting with a growing coalition of disability groups, Mr. Goldstein explained why a registration system is an unworkable and unacceptable solution.  Mr. Aiken responded, offering the possibility of making text-to-speech e-books available at an additional cost.  The coalition unanimously agreed that a “disability tax” was also not an acceptable solution.  The Authors Guild has not offered any other proposals and declined an invitation to speak at the protest planned in front of its New York headquarters on April 7th.  We have asked the Authors Guild to share with us with the contract language that it claims prohibits Amazon from including text-to-speech on its books.  The Authors Guild has not responded to that request.

On March 16, Mr. Goldstein, on behalf of a coalition of organizations representing people with print disabilities, sent a letter to the six publishers who are providing e-books for the Kindle 2, asking each of them to allow their books to be read on the device with text-to-speech and explaining that the coalition would engage in a national public education campaign in hopes of reversing the stance of the authors and publishers who have demanded text-to-speech be disabled from their Kindle books.

The controversy between the print-disability community and the Authors Guild is, at its heart, a civil rights issue involving the right of people with disabilities to participate fully in our society.  More and more digital information is displayed on a variety of devices:  Computer screens, mobile phones, ATM’s, home appliances and now books.   Don't Gag the Kindle, Throw the E-book at the Authors Guild, etcBecause digital information is not inherently visual, aural or tactile, but simply 0’s and 1’s that may be expressed as text, sound or Braille, the use of digital information should be a great equalizer for the blind and others with print disabilities.  However, when digital information is only available visually, it excludes those with print disabilities the way steps with no ramp excludes those with mobility impairments.  An author is not obligated to make their books available as electronic books, but once he or she does so, then it is wrong to insist that the electronic book may only be consumed one way when that insistence systematically excludes one segment of our society.  It is to no one’s benefit, not even the author’s, when a person with a print disability is unable to buy a book.

The coalition plans to kick off this campaign with a protest in front of the Authors Guild headquarters in New York City on Tuesday, April 7, from noon until 2:00 p.m.  All persons interested in this issue are invited to attend.

References:

  1. 2009-02-10 New Kindle Audio Feature Causes a Stir
  2. 2009-02-12 E-Book Rights Alert: Amazon's Kindle 2 Adds "Text to Speech" Function
  3. 2009-03-12 National Federation of the Blind Responds to Authors Guild
    Statement on the Amazon Kindle 2
  4. 2009-02-22 Copyright Bullies #1 (first in an occasional series)
  5. 2009-02-24 The Kindle Swindle? By ROY BLOUNT Jr.
  6. 2009-02-25 Kindle 2 Audio: How Does It Sound?
  7. 2009-02-27 Statement from Amazon.com Regarding Kindle 2's Experimental Text-to-Speech Feature
  8. 2009-03-02 Authors Guild says “a good first step”
  9. 2009-03-16 Reading Rights Coalition Open Letter to Authors Guild
  10. 2009-03-19 Amazon Kindle to have accessible navigation and controls
  11. Reading Rights Coalition Correspondence With Authors Guild: March 3 - April 3, 2009 (Word doc)
  12. Summary from this site: Why this is discriminatory, censorship, and bad business