Notes from the protest: People vs Authors Guild on Kindle 2 text to speech
The following is my report from the April 7, 2009 Reading Rights Coalition demonstration in front of the NYC offices of the Authors Guild, regarding text to speech for Kindle 2.
At a Glance:
Feb 9, 2009. Release of Kindle 2
Feb 24, 2009. Roy Blount Jr., President of the Authors Guild (AG) wrongly claims TTS would be an infringement of
copyright and a threat to audio books in a New York Times op-ed.
Feb 27, 2009. Under pressure from the Authors Guild, Amazon announced it would modify its system so authors and publishers could turn off the TTS on a title by title basis
The National Foundation for the Blind initiate a dialogue with the AG
Authors Guild proposed a separate registration system which was rejected by reading disabled persons representatives
Authors Guild then proposed to make e-book TTS available at additional cost
March 16 Letter from coalition to main 6 publishers
March 19, 2009. Amazon announced on its Kindle Blog that it will make the menus and controls on the device fully accessible to blind people
April 7, 2009. The Reading Rights Coalition kicks off its campaign to reverse the stance of authors and publishers who have disabled text-to speech with a protest in New York city (see pictures at the end of the post)
It started on February 9, 2009, when with much fanfare, Amazon released Kindle 2. This was not about just any new gadget put on the market place. The sleek device (around $300) provides access to over 245,000 electronic books or e-books and the collection expands everyday. The electronic books (they look more or less like any good digital file on your computer screen) can be downloaded for about $10. For the first time in history people with reading disabilities could enjoy access to books on an equal basis with those who can read print. Knowing too well that only a small fraction of books are produced as audio books (with human voices), are expensive to produce and are often abridged, people with reading disabilities were pleased and eager to use the new device with its text-to-speech built in feature — advertised by Amazon — which consists in a synthetic voice reading aloud the digital file on the device screen.
On February 27, 2009, under pressure from the Authors Guild, Amazon announced it would modify its system so authors and publishers could turn off the Text To Speech function. For representatives of blind, visually impaired and reading disabled persons and their allies in the access to knowledge (A2K) movement, this modification is discriminatory, results in a form of censorship, is bad business and may threaten the development of innovative technologies.
Why is it discrimination? Because it denies people with disabilities equal access. They have to “register” (with Amazon? the Authors Guild?) or pay more and thus they become a separate and unequal category of readers. It excludes people from the market place and is an act of segregation. For many who find themselves newly reading disabled, like veterans or elderly people and for those whose diagnosis have not be made yet, registration (to pay for books anyway!) is expensive and difficult. Today, it is true many people in the US are “registered” for free service (with authorized entities) in order to get access to printed books in accessible formats (like Braille or the DAISY format) all of this under a special copyright exception for reading impaired people. But this is not what is going on here (this is NOT about benefiting from an exception to a copyright). In a world where paying consumers can download a book and start reading it and where there exists a technology that allows people with reading disabilities to do the same, turning off text to speech is a brutal act of segregation.
Why is it an unacceptable form of censorship? Because if authors and publishers can decide who reads, when and how, it is censorship. It is against the free flow of information that they claim to believe in.
Why is it bad for business? People with reading disabilities (and their families, friends, teachers etc) would buy the Kindle 2 and would buy many books. Instead of going through special channels that do not bring revenue to publishers, they are willing to pay whatever any consumer pay. Why exclude consumers such as people who are blind, visually impaired, or reading disabled because of dyslexia or other causes? There are about 15 million print-disabled people in the United States, why would the Authors Guild and Amazon not want them as paying readers of their e-books?
Why is it bad for innovation and the future of e-book? The lack of incentives for developers and manufacturers of reading devices may slow down progress in the field. Furthermore, Kindle 2 could end up having a de facto monopoly if the only way to acquire content from the publishers is to accept the contractual terms imposed on Amazon. The actions of the authors Guild will frame the issue for all existing and future reading platforms not only Kindle 2.
For all these reasons and many more, including ethics, the Authors Guild must reverse its position and let all consumers — including people with reading disabilities — buy and read their books.
April 7, 2009. Reading Rights Coalition Protest
At noon, on a chilly spring day in New York City, about 350 people (?) started to picket in front of the Authors Guild headquarters at 31 E 32 street. One side of the one way street was cordoned off and police officers stood at each end of the protest path that was about a third of the block (distance in yard?).
At the PA system (which was never silent during the protest that lasted exactly 2 hours), Dr. Frederick K. Schroeder of the National Federation of the Blind introduced various members of the Reading Rights Coalition. Each organization came up to the microphone and made a few minutes statements. Some speeches were moving, inspiring, some expressed surprise and anger, some were funny, encouraging…all were different but they were all on message.
Reading disabled people want to read, it’s their right, they will not take no for an answer. Other people invited to the microphone chanted. They had some witty chants, some teasing the Authors Guild, mocking Roy Blunt Jr. (the Guild president) some more serious (no need for greed, we want to read, we do not want charity, we’re asking for parity, now)…. Once in a while the marchers were re-energized (some were almost dancing) by some well-known pop music blasting (oops). Most passers-by smiled when they were handed the “no need for greed” flier, expressed sympathy and some even join “the picket” for a few “rounds”. It was chilly but everyone was warm.
It is not that easy for 300 plus people (even with super smart dogs) and kids in tow to walk in a long circle for two hours holding big signs “screaming” to sympathetic New Yorkers passing by and the Authors Guild: We Want to Read! Do not Silence my Kindle, We Cannot Read You Like a Book, …Don’t Disable the Kindle! Great Writing Deserves to be Heard, Equal Access it’s the Law, Books aren’t just for Looks, Give Kindle the Freedom of Speech, Print for Some, Audio for Others, Potential e-book Reader Below, Make the Sound Decision about Kindle, You do not Need to See to Read, Let America read!, Let’s Turn Over a New Page on Access, Let Kindle Speak, Writers, Right a Wrong, Why don’t Authors Want to be Heard?, Throw the e-book at the Authors Guild, Don’t Gag the Kindle…
These people were tough. It was an honor to walk with them. And I am sure the Authors Guild heard and saw us from their 7th floor windows!