To Kindle-2 or Not: Discriminating Against People that Cannot Read

Kindle: Mutes Text to Speech OptionThere is currently a lot of buzz about good / green business, specifically in Social Media circles.  This is especially true in terms of companies and organizations managing their brand perception.  A few of the evolving social media "tenants" are that companies should strive to do business that creates goodwill, become part of the community,  and create amazing customer experiences.  The social capital, or wuffie that these actions create has a very real, tangible value for everyone involved.  This sounds like common sense, right?  Well, apparently not to some.

A few days ago, I was invited by a friend to attend a protest in New York City supporting the Reading Rights Coalition.  The Reading Rights Coalition, "which represents people who cannot read print, will protest the threatened removal of the text-to-speech function from e-books for the Amazon Kindle 2 outside the Authors Guild headquarters in New York City at 31 East 32nd Street on April 7, 2009, from noon to 2:00 p.m."  I'm always up for a protest, and the Author's Guild stance, while legal, didn't seem all together reasonable.  The Author's Guild claims that the Kindle 2's text-to-speech feature somehow violates copyright.  According to Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, "They don't have the right to read a book out loud.  That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law."  

Yes, he really said that.  And the "they" he was referring to, were people that can't read.  All of them.  That includes the blind, people with dyslexia, learning issues, stroke victims, etc.  You get the idea.  People that can't read, but that are able to enjoy, comprehend, or consume media in other forms. Mr. Aiken, though, basically feels that all "text-to-speech" applications are illegal (read this article from the Guardian UK for more legal analysis).  The guild very clearly feels they "have to" defend the authors; that's why they don't get it.

In Mr. Aiken's defense, it's not his responsibility to represent the interests of readers.  He represents the interests of authors.  With the Kindle-2, text-to-speech voice quality has improved significantly.  Further improvements to voice quality may very well challenge the need or sale of audiobooks in the future.  This strikes me more as an exercise in control by the Author's guild to "protect" its authors and ensure that they have the final say as to how their works are sold and monetized.

So, getting back to the "wuffie".  The Author's Guild may be getting lots of press for their actions.  It's good for them to be viewed as defending the rights of authors, as that is what they're supposed to do.  Surprisingly, they got Amazon to cave in to them, and agree that authors' have the right to negotiate on a work-by-work basis which works will support text-to-speech.  The Guild, though, is hemorrhaging wuffie.  Gallons of it. 

Here was an opportunity to go to the authors' and to use the Kindle-2 as an opportunity to embrace a new delivery channel for their works while also promoting the implied social responsibility that authors have to make their work accessible.  Do they have to?  No, of course not.  in hindsight, though, here's what they did:
  • Alienated a community of people with a need.  I still cannot get over the fact that the Kindle-2 is a tool that people that cannot read can use to consume books, which drives these people to buy the device and the books, which the Authors Guild does not want to allow unless they buy an "audiobook".
  • Created a perception of greed and control about their organization.  I'm compelled to dub Mr. Aiken as the "Gorden Gecko of Words", but I doubt it would stick. 
  • Created a barrier to potential customers.  So, as a person that can read, why would I buy a Kindle-2 for $400, and then an ebook for $10, only to find that Amazon has control over what I can do with that ebook? Is the Authors Guild going to limit the number of times I can load it?  
On the flip side, here is what they could have done:
  • Embraced the technology.  Text-to-speech may threaten audio books some day, but that day is not now and no "preemptive legal strike" is going to delay that.  If anything, it stifles innovation.  What if improvement in audio book or text-to-speech quality actually results in more book sales?  The Authors Guild should be empowering authors to create the best works possible.  If you build it right, people will come to see it (or in this case, hear it).    
  • Worked with the communities that depend on this technology.  Every company loves early adopters for a product.  The guild should be partnering with Amazon to help distribute Kindle-2s to organizations, schools, and groups that employ, teach, or work with individuals that need this technology.  Being in service is profitable, and more companies need to wise up to this fact.
  • Connect with new customers to create amazing experiences.  This weekend, I am taking my son to see the Wizard of Oz in New York City.  He's seven, has not seen the movie, and was first exposed to the story reading a comic book series of the same name by Marvel Comics.  I took for granted that he had so many different ways to experience this story; a movie, a play, book, audiobook, etc.  Now if he were blind, or disabled, how would I have exposed him to this?  Children need this technology more than anyone.
So I'll be at the protest on the 7th with my son.  Together we'll be tweeting the event.  If you are interested in attending, feel free to reach out to me.  Stay tuned for updates from the protest.
image credited to the Copyright Advisory Network under the Creative Commons license.

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  1. Kristi Bowman April 4, 2009 at 9:16 AM

    Thank you for your comprehensive and accurate blog. The Reading Rights Coalition is growing, new organiztions are joining to help with this issue that sets limitations on all print-disabled people. The petition is gaining momemtum. Sign the petition at

  2. Abraham April 4, 2009 at 10:51 PM

    Thanks for the kind words, Kristi. For more information on the protest planned for April 7th, please visit the Facebook Protest Against the Authors Guild event page. You can also view the Reading Rights Coalition Facebook Page to learn more about the group, and how you can get involved.

  3. Abraham April 4, 2009 at 10:53 PM

    Lastly, here's a direct link to the We Want To Read petition. See you on the 7th; I'm looking forward to tweeting live from the protest.

  4. LBW April 6, 2009 at 9:44 AM

    My 6-year-old daughter is blind. She's learning braille, and I hope that she becomes an avid reader, just like I am. Another way for her to have access to written materials is using text-to-speech technology. That's why I'm asking you to sign a petition to protest the threatened removal of the text-to-speech function from e-books for the Amazon Kindle 2 (read more below the link). Everyone deserves access to books.

    Please sign the petition at:


  5. Lorelei Clark April 6, 2009 at 12:56 PM

    As the parent of a blind child, I want my son to have access to any literary materials he wishes and through the use of e-books, this becomes more possible.

    Lorelei Clark, California

  6. Unknown April 6, 2009 at 3:40 PM

    Hey Abe--

    While the Author's Guild does plenty of good stuff (I know a few members), this is clearly silly. Feels like when all the movie studios were whining that VHS (and then DVDs, and then Netflix, and then streaming, and then...) was going to kill their business, but instead each of those items just expanded the market. I guess everyone just wants to control the timeline.

    Looking forward to hearing about what goes down at the protest. And kind of a cool thing to expose your son too.

  7. Stephanie Taylor April 8, 2009 at 11:55 AM

    I wear glasses and without them I would be almost completely blind. I love reading more than anything else but there are times when the print even with glasses is hard to read and when I can get the book with audio it makes up for what my eyes lack. Reading is a special gift and many people from young to the elderly need this type of audio and it is not fair to make the choice of taking something that helps them away from them.
    Stephanie Taylor, Michigan

  8. Tracy Culbert April 8, 2009 at 11:58 AM

    My grandmother instilled a love of reading in my family. She took time to read every single day and always made time to take us to the library. As she aged her cataracts prevented her from reading. Her final days were spent listening to game shows rather then good literature. A speech to text Kindle would have brought her a lot joy. There are many others who, through an injury, medical treatments (chemotherapy) or a disability, do not have the ability to read. The Kindle 2 would enrich their lives and expand the market for publishing companies and authors. Please reconsider your decision.

    The petition is still available to sign. I urge everyone to sign and pass along! Go to
    Tracy Culbert, Alaska

  9. Abraham April 9, 2009 at 11:51 AM

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important issue. It's great to see people willing to talk about why this issue is important to them, and how they are impacted. Keep sharing your stories. :)