The National Federation of the Blind's Imbroglio with the Author's Guild and their distaste for the Kindle 2's text-to-speech function is heating up. Today they took it to the Guild's own doorstep here in NYC.
Basically the story is this: the Author's Guild raised issue with the Kindle 2's new robotic text-to-speech feature, which can read any Kindle book aloud in a synthesized voice—naturally, a feature that would be an absolute delight for the vision impaired. The Author's Guild, however, saw things differently, stating that eBooks are not sold with "performance" rights and that the Kindle's read-aloud feature would cut into the sales of audio books. And last month, Amazon caved to the Guild, giving individual publishers the ability to disable the text-to-speech reader for specific books.
As you might imagine, the blind community is quite upset at this clear case of business interests getting in the way of the blind or vision impaired to have a gigantic library of Kindle books at their fingertips. I can't really see any part of the Author's Guild's argument that's not pretty evil and ridiculous, and as our own resident book author Jason Chen says: "As a guy who's written a book—however shitty it may be—if the Kindle's TTS helps just one blind person, then it's worth it."
Everything was of course peaceful and contained right in front of the Author's Guild's seventh floor offices on 32nd street on Manhattan's east side. They had a pretty fantastic march ring set up, with many folks leading those who could not see at all in the ring, and sighted people whose job was to tell the marchers when to turn. Several seeing eye dogs joined in expressing their distaste.
The Author's guild maintains that making works available to the blind is one of their highest priorities, but they've handled the situation poorly thus far—to wit, their first proposal for solving the problem was having blind Kindle owners register their devices so they could purchase audio rights to their e-books. You don't ever ask the disabled to join a special registry, especially for something like this. They said in their statement:
"The Authors Guild will gladly be a forceful advocate for amending contracts to provide access to voice-output technology to everyone. We will not, however, surrender our members' economic rights to Amazon or anyone else. The leap to digital has been brutal for print media generally, and the economics of the transition from print to e-books do not look as promising as many assume. Authors can't afford to start this transition to digital by abandoning rights."
Clearly, tensions are still high. The statement continues:
"Today's protest is unfortunate and unnecessary. We stand by our offer, first made to the Federation's lawyer a month ago and repeated several times since, to negotiate in good faith to reach a solution for making in-print e-books accessible to everyone. We extend that same offer to any group representing the disabled."
We're all about getting people paid for their work, but to cite lost royalties and audio book revenues as the main reason to deprive the blind community from the full Kindle archive —which, if you remember, Jeff Bezos hopes will soon include every book ever published—seems kind of ridiculous.
If you would like to support the National Federation of the Blind, you can do so at their website, and more can be read on the Author's Guild's position on their site. Readingrights.org also has an informed discussion of the issue.