Thursday, February 19, 2009

Author's Guild in Kindle Controversy

close up view of Amazon Kindle An interesting argument has sprung up recently regarding text to speech capabilities in a e-book reader. The Kindle 2: Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device
is the e-book reader in questions. The Kindle takes a specifically formatted electronic file, and allows the reader to view the file on a small screen about the size of a paperback book. The Kindle also has the ability to convert the text to speech for the reader of the e-book, which is where the controversy has arisen.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal:

"They don't have the right to read a book out loud," said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. "That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law."

A number of tech publications have taken up the issue. Tech Dirt wondered (tongue in cheek) about the legality of reading to our kids, in another article disputed the claim that this would be illegal as it it is not a public performance. The Electronic Freedom Frontier (EFF) disputed the definition of a derivative work, citing that there would have to be a modification of the content to be derivative.
A few have addressed the accessibility issue this could raise for those with disabilities. One commentator questioned whether captioning would then be illegal as it is a text version of audio/ video.
In attempting to defend themselves from the criticism this issue has raised, the Author's Guild posted to their site an explanation / defense. In it they defend their position, but do say that reading to our kids is allowable, and that reading aloud at home is okay. Almost as an afterthought, in the last two sentences of their defense they state:
"Others suggest that challenging Amazon's use of this software challenges accessibility to the visually impaired. It doesn't: Kindle 2 isn't designed for such use. The Guild continues to support efforts to make works truly accessible to the visually impaired."

There are a few issues here. Firstly, accessibility isn't just about making it accessible for those with visual impairments. There are many individuals who would benefit from the text to speech capabilities of the Kindle, such as those with other print disabilities such as learning disabilities or those with mobility difficulties which would make holding a book and turning a page difficult but pushing a button to turn the page okay. Secondly, the issue of whether it's "designed for such use" is irrelevant. It's a nice piece of universal design, it could work well for many with disabilities as well as people who just want that functionality.
I understand that the Author's Guild is positioned to look at the rights of authors, and state that "Until this issue is worked out, Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books." This assumes that text to speech is comparable to audio books read by a real person. I was unable to find information on the engine which drives the Kindle's text to speech functionality, but would be surprised if it's comparable to a human voice. Both Apple computers and those running Microsoft Windows have text to speech engines build into them, not to mention the commercial products on the market such as JAWS (for those with visual impairments) and Kurzweil 3000 (for those with LD and other print disabilities) so if someone was able to get an electronic copy of a book in the past they could have the same functionality (though of variable quality) with their home computer.
A big difference with this episode with the Kindle is that for the first time the electronic version of the book is the primary product versus in the past it was the alternative format and had to be specifically requested from the publisher or created manually.
Ultimately, for many of those with print disabilities, they have a free alternative, and can be free of much of this controversy through which provides free electronic versions of books to eligible individuals. For those who can prove they qualify, Bookshare will be the better option, for the rest of us, I suspect that e-book readers will be come more ubiquitous. Hopefully this controversy will not color peoples vision of the Kindle, but only raise the profile and drive down the price.

Kindle Demonstration @ Amazon
Kindle 2: Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device @ Amazon

Picture of Kindle courtesy of John Pastor

Thanks for supporting Maine VRC.

No comments: