Friday, February 13, 2009

The Struggle for Book Access (Blog Post #1)

I’ve been watching with interest the legal controversy over the synthetic speech capability of the new version of the Amazon Kindle, such as the coverage on Boing-Boing entitled Author's Guild claims text-to-speech software is illegal. I think it’s time to write a series of short essays on the struggle for accessible books, starting with this brouhaha.

This isn’t a new issue. George Kerscher and I wrote a major essay on the topic seven(!) years ago entitled the Soundproof Book. In it, we pointed out the irony that the first generation of ebook readers being inaccessible to blind people. This irony continues: it’s a terrible shame that Amazon (and other ebook device vendors) keeps putting out ebook products that are inaccessible to the blind! More on that in another essay. The essence of the Soundproof Book essay was the dueling moral high grounds: author’s rights vs. the right to access. Since these are both generally good from society’s standpoint, how do you handle the conflict between them?

It’s easy to dismiss the authors’ concerns (as many have in the tech community) as greedy or Luddite. But, you have to realize that authors get the short end of the stick in the publishing business (not that there is that much stick to go around in the publishing industry!). There are very few authors making the big bucks. Most authors get very little money from their work and every new thing that pops up seems like one more thing chipped away from them. There have been occasions where new technology was introduced and the publishers made the money and the authors did not get a share. So, don't be surprised when the authors put up their hand and say "what about me?"

When we launched Bookshare, we had a similar interaction with a major authors’ association, the SFWA. We proudly told them that we had cleared Bookshare with the publishers: wrong move! Many of their members (science fiction and fantasy authors) hate publishers. It took us a while, but we were able to negotiate an agreement with the SFWA to reconcile our competing moral high grounds. The essence of it from our side was to show heightened respect for authors: to recognize that authors have moral interests in their works and how they are disseminated. For example, if an author comes to us concerned about the quality of one of their books on Bookshare, we’ll allow them to review the copy and if it has mistakes we’ll pull it until they are fixed. And in exchange, the SFWA encourages their members to voluntarily give Bookshare their content (high quality files remove/greatly reduce the danger of errors creeping in).

Unfortunately, it’s too late for the authors to make much headway on their argument, which is that allowing purchasers of ebooks to have them read aloud by synthetic speech trespasses on the audio rights for their books. Thanks to a legion of people who care about usability and access, ebooks have more and more enabled great flexibility in presentation. You can easily set the Kindle to make the text size larger. Does that violate the large print rights? Ebooks on PCs have had text-to-speech capabilities for years (although not always enabled). Years of practice both in general markets and especially in the disability market have recognized that synthetic speech is something that can be done when you have text. The National Federation of the Blind came out with a strong statement objecting to the author position: admitting the authors’ argument would set blind people and disability access back years.

Another key argument is distribution. Amazon isn’t distributing an audio book: it’s distributing a text ebook (which they have the rights to do so and authors get compensated for, one assumes). The Kindle having text-to-speech is a presentation option, not a format of distribution. If people starting taking audio versions of their Kindle books and distributing them, they would of course be violating copyright. But that has nothing to do with whether distributing text ebooks is a violation of the separate rights for an audio book.

Author Neil Gaiman put forth similar arguments in his Journal, which I appreciate.

The ship has sailed. Authors are making their money (although probably a pittance) on the books being sold through Amazon, which is generally a good thing. Trying to roll back this minor technological advance is going to fail, and there really is no opportunity to extract an additional rent here, however deserving authors are of increased appreciation by society.

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