by Daniel B. Frye
Founded and led by the National Federation of the Blind, the Reading Rights Coalition (RRC) was formed in March 2009 to oppose the efforts of the Authors Guild to persuade Amazon to eliminate or severely restrict access to the text-to-speech feature incorporated in the Kindle 2, Amazon's newest e-book reading device. On Tuesday, April 7, over two hundred blind and print-disabled people from the RRC gathered in New York City to conduct an informational picket in front of the Authors Guild to educate industry leaders and the general public about this issue. While speakers from RRC member organizations aroused the protesters with sharp commentaries on the logical flaws in the authors' arguments, marchers braved the cold weather and offered chants like "The Authors Guild's swindle bars access to the Kindle"; "We'd all have access sooner if not for Roy Blount Junior"; "I may not see, but I can hear--books can be read with the eye or the ear"; and "Without speech you cannot teach all those folks you hope to reach." Signs emblazoned with slogans like "Books aren't just for looks," "Throw the e-book at the Authors Guild," "Make the sound decision about Kindle," and "Don't give Kindle the silent treatment," captured the attention of bypassers, who saw the assembly circling in the street and on the sidewalk cordoned off by police for the demonstration.
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. Such technology, long used by blind people and those with other print disabilities, reads text aloud using synthetic speech. The blind and 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.
Shortly after the Kindle 2’s release, the Authors Guild, the largest national organization representing the interests of writers, protested Amazon’s deployment of text-to-speech on the Kindle 2. Viewing this feature as a potential threat to the audio-book market, the Guild argued that the automated reading aloud of a book is a copyright infringement unless the copyright holder has specifically granted permission. 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 27 that it would modify its system so that authors and publishers could turn off text-to-speech title by title. The RRC contends that 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 F. Goldstein, initiated a dialogue with Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, to discuss the effect that the removal of text-to-speech has on the blind and the market benefits of including text-to-speech on a mainstream product. In response Mr. Aiken proposed a separate registry for people with print disabilities, allowing a blind or print-disabled person to 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 unjust solution when applied commercially. Mr. Aiken has since responded, offering the possibility of making text-to-speech e-books available at an additional cost.
On March 16, on behalf of the RRC, Mr. Goldstein sent a letter to the six publishers 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 already disabled text-to-speech in their Kindle books.
Amazon’s behavior has not been much more impressive than that of the authors and publishers. In addition to capitulating to the unreasonable and illegal demands of the book industry to curtail the text-to-speech capacity on the Kindle 2, Amazon has created an e-book reader that is currently inaccessible to blind people. While the text-to-speech function on the Kindle 2 works well for low-vision and print-disabled users, its hardware does not allow a blind person to operate and activate the text-to-speech feature of the device independently. Fortunately, Amazon announced on March 19, 2009, through its Kindle 2 blog that it will make the controls and menus on its e-book reader accessible to blind people. The NFB is heartened by this promise. We can now hope that Amazon will find the corporate resolve to stand firm against those interests that would block our access to books by objecting to our use of text-to-speech on the Kindle 2.
In addition to the speeches, music, and marchers, other protest participants stood on the street corners and circulated an RRC-endorsed flyer to anyone who would take it. The flyer offered a brief explanation of the RRC position. At the time of this writing, the RRC consists of thirty-two organizations of and for blind and print-disabled people; when the flyer was originally drafted and circulated, far fewer organizations had joined the protest group. The text of the RRC protest flyer follows:
No Need for Greed
We Want to Read!
We represent fifteen million Americans who cannot read print because of blindness, dyslexia, spinal cord injury, and other print disabilities. We include school children; the elderly; professionals; college students; returning veterans; and your neighbors, family members, and friends. We want to buy books. We have fought very hard for many years to have equal access to technology and information.
For the first time, now that the Amazon Kindle 2 offers text-to-speech, which will read a book aloud, we can purchase and enjoy books like everybody else. Sadly, the Authors Guild does not support equal access for us. The Guild has told us that, to read its books with text-to-speech, we must either submit to a burdensome special registration system and prove our disabilities or pay extra. The Guild's position is contrary to the principle of equal opportunity for all and discriminates against millions of people with print disabilities.
Please support us by emailing your support to <ReadingRights@nfb.org>. For more information, please visit our Website: <www.readingrights.org>.
Reading Rights Coalition Members:
American Association of People with Disabilities
Association of Blind Citizens
American Council of the Blind
American Foundation for the Blind
Arc of the United States
Association on Higher Education And Disability
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
Burton Blatt Institute
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet
International Dyslexia Association
International Dyslexia Association--New York Branch
Jewish Guild for the Blind
Knowledge Ecology International
Learning Disabilities Association of America
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Disability Rights Network
National Federation of the Blind
National Spinal Cord Injury Association
United Cerebral Palsy
Xavier Society for the Blind
The protest received considerable press coverage. The following Associated Press story is representative of the tone and profile the event garnered in the media:
by Rachel Metz
New York (AP)--A group representing the blind and other people with disabilities protested limitations to the new read-aloud feature on Amazon.com Inc.'s latest Kindle electronic reader Tuesday, arguing that the restrictions unfairly limit their access to e-books. The feature, which reads text in a stiff-sounding electronic voice, is still available for all books on the new Kindle, which was unveiled in February. But the Authors Guild has expressed concern that the feature will hurt sales of audio books, so Amazon plans to give publishers and authors the ability to silence the text-to-speech function for their books.
That is what prompted the newly formed Reading Rights Coalition, whose supporters include the National Federation of the Blind and the American Association of People with Disabilities, to stage what it called an "informational protest" outside the office of the Authors Guild in New York. The protesters shouted "We want access sooner" and "Stop the greed; we want to read."
Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said the protest was the first of several to come around the country, in the hope that Amazon will change its stance. The group started with the Authors Guild because it "caused the trouble" with the text-to-speech feature, Maurer said. The number of books Amazon has made available for the Kindle--more than two hundred and sixty thousand so far--is "huge" compared to the fifty to sixty thousand books generally available through libraries for the blind, he said. It is not known how many of these Kindle books now have the text-to-speech feature disabled.
Maurer said he doesn't buy the notion that the feature could hurt sales of audio books. He said the function might even help audio book sales because "If you get a taste of it, you might want the other version," he said.
In a statement the Authors Guild called the protest "unfortunate and unnecessary." The group reiterated an earlier suggestion that the Federation of the Blind take advantage of an exception to the Copyright Act that lets visually impaired people access audio versions of copyrighted books. "Technology makes this step easy: certified users of existing Kindles could activate their devices online to enable access to voice-output versions of all e-books. This process could be ready to go within weeks," the Guild said. Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said the company had no comment.
Continuing the public pressure against the Authors Guild and its allies, NFB President Marc Maurer penned an editorial piece printed in the Baltimore Sun on April 14. This piece effectively summarizes almost every issue and argument marshaled so far on our side of this debate. Here is what he said:
by Marc Maurer
I love to read, and I've been doing it ever since I was able. My wife is also an avid reader. But my wife and I are blind, and, because I lead the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, we have many blind friends. And, although many of us read anything we can get our hands on, we can't get our hands on very much to read.
There are services for us, of course. Government entities and nonprofit organizations convert books into Braille, audio, or digital form for our use. But only 5 percent of all books published undergo such a conversion. A few more are available as commercial audio books, but these are often abridged, and those that are unabridged are quite expensive.
Nowadays a solution to the problem of reading material is tantalizingly within our reach: the e-book. When Amazon released its new Kindle 2 e-book reader earlier this year, it announced that the device now includes text-to-speech software and can read e-books aloud. Those of us who are blind were filled with joy at this news. For the first time in history, it would now be possible, we hoped, for the blind to do something that everyone else takes for granted: purchase a brand new book and start reading it right away.
Our hope quickly turned to despair, however--and then to anger. The Authors Guild doesn't want the Kindle 2 to be able to read books aloud. They say this new ability violates authors' copyrights. This argument has absolutely no basis in copyright law. Reading a print book aloud or having it read to you in the privacy of your home is not a copyright violation; the only difference with the Kindle 2 is that a machine rather than a human being is doing the reading.
In the face of this specious attack from the Authors Guild, Amazon initially took the legally and morally correct position that the text-to-speech feature of the Kindle 2 did not violate copyright law. But then the company backed down, saying it would allow authors and publishers to decide which books they would permit to be read aloud by the device. Dismayed, we contacted the Authors Guild. It claimed it did not oppose having e-books read aloud to the blind, as long as there was a national registry of blind people who would then be allowed to unlock the text-to-speech feature.
This is wrong. The Authors Guild has no right to discriminate against disabled readers by segregating us into a separate and unequal class. If our sighted friends don't have to "sign up" to be permitted to read, then blind people shouldn't either. And once we buy a book, how we read it is nobody's business but ours. When we told the Authors Guild this, they added insult to injury by telling us that, if we wouldn't sign up for a registry, we would just have to pay extra in order to use text-to-speech. Needless to say, this is outrageous and reprehensible behavior from an organization of people who claim to support equal access to literature by all Americans. Instead of facilitating the free flow of information, the Authors Guild is making itself the arbiter of who is worthy of access to the printed word.
The Authors Guild isn't just discriminating against blind people. People with other disabilities--especially brain injuries and conditions like dyslexia--would also benefit from the ability to have books read aloud to them electronically. Groups representing many of these people are joining us to protest the position of the Authors Guild and Amazon's craven response to it.
At present, very few of us buy books in any form. If we could have e-books read aloud to us, however, we would happily pay for them. We are an untapped market consisting of some fifteen million people to which authors and publishers have never before had direct access. For this reason the position of the Authors Guild is not only morally repugnant but also bad business. Prohibiting the blind and others from reading commercially available e-books just means that authors and publishers won't get our money. The Guild's position hurts both authors and people with print disabilities.
In an age when how we get information is constantly and rapidly changing, it's important that people with disabilities have access to it in the same way that it is important for us to have access to physical structures, goods, and services. Amazon took an important step in the right direction by including a read-aloud feature on the Kindle 2, but the Authors Guild is now trying to set us back. We are not going to allow them to stand in the doorway of the virtual bookstore to keep us out.
During the weeks and months ahead, the NFB and our partners in the RRC will employ multiple strategies to resolve this dispute to the advantage of all--giving blind and other print-disabled people access to books and giving the commercial publishing industry the benefit of our patronage. Our efforts to influence this matter will be limited only by our capacity for creativity and level of energy. The NFB has an ample supply of these human resources. We will reach out to the Authors Guild and publishers to continue a constructive dialogue. Simultaneously we will point out the injustice and absurdity of their position in forums where individual authors and publishers gather. Federationists and other RRC members, for instance, attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books during the weekend of April 24 to 26 to carry our message to the four hundred and fifty authors and over one hundred and sixty thousand readers who participated in this event. The NFB and our RRC friends have established an online petition for supporters to sign. At this writing 6,723 people have had their say in support of our views. You are invited to review and sign the petition by visiting <http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/We-Want-To-Read>. We have drafted model resolution language explaining this situation and demanding a remedy to circulate to our chapters, affiliates, divisions, colleagues in the blindness community, and partners in the RRC. The text of the model resolution that people can feel free to use in support of this campaign follows:
WHEREAS, the ability to read is critical to living a well-informed personal and professional life; and
WHEREAS, blindness and other disabilities pose challenges to accessing all available written information fully and efficiently; and
WHEREAS, text-to-speech technology has helped to remove these access barriers for the approximately fifteen million blind and otherwise print-disabled people living in the United States; and
WHEREAS, Amazon's Kindle 2 is one of the first mainstream, commercially available e-book reading devices to incorporate text-to-speech functionality, potentially making well over one quarter of a million titles accessible to the blind and other people with print disabilities; and
WHEREAS, this heretofore untapped community of eager consumers promises to benefit publishers and authors; and
WHEREAS, many educational institutions are exploring the possibility of e-textbooks and mobile access to electronic book information; and
WHEREAS, upon learning that the Kindle 2 would feature text-to-speech technology, significant segments of the publishing industry and the Authors Guild promptly lodged specious legal and business objections with Amazon, urging it to eliminate or severely restrict access to the synthesized-speech function of this device; and
WHEREAS, one specific objection of the Authors Guild was that the ability to have a legitimately purchased e-book read aloud with text-to-speech technology violates copyright, a legal claim that experts have dismissed as erroneous, since people who buy books have the right to acquire the information privately in whatever way best suits their needs as long as they do not reproduce the content of the book for general circulation; and
WHEREAS, Amazon has agreed to allow publishers to deactivate the text-to-speech feature on the Kindle 2 for individual authors based on lists provided by the publishers; and
WHEREAS, the suggestions that leaders of the Authors Guild have proposed to mitigate the harm visited upon blind and print-disabled readers (e.g., creation of a national registry of blind and print-disabled readers or charging additional money for the privilege of accessing books on the device with speech output) are wholly unsatisfactory to first-class customers who are prepared–like everybody else–to pay for the product that Amazon has developed, advertised, promoted, and sold to the general public; and
WHEREAS, civil rights laws and policies in the United States oppose and protect against acts that thwart equal access and equitable treatment of the blind and other people with print disabilities: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED that Name in conference assembled this xxx day of xxx, 2009, in the city of xxx, urges state and municipal procurement agencies, schools, institutions of higher education, and libraries to be mindful of the requirements of technology procurement laws, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and insist that mobile e-book readers and e-books have accessible text to speech; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we register our strong protest against the attempts by the Authors Guild to eliminate or restrict the text-to-speech technology that Amazon has incorporated into its Kindle 2 e-book reading device; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we call upon the publishing industry and the Authors Guild to abandon their unreasonable demands on Amazon to degrade the text-to-speech feature on the Kindle 2 and–barring the willingness of the publishing industry and the Authors Guild to comply with this resolution–that we call upon Amazon itself to ignore the outrageous and self-interested petitions of both the publishing industry and the Authors Guild.
To remain up-to-date with developments in this evolving story, readers should regularly visit the Websites of the RRC and NFB (<http://www.readingrights.org> and <http://www.nfb.org>). The battle ahead may be difficult, but we will emerge victorious.