The Big Turnoff: Furor Over Kindle Audio Puts Random Between Rock and Hard Place

You shall not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind.
Leviticus 19:14

I realize it’s unfashionable to feel sorry for Random House, but I think they’re getting the rotten end of the stick for a problem not of their making.

You’ll recall that Amazon’s initiative to convert the texts of Kindle e-books to speech generated a furious response from authors and publishers because of potential infringement on their reserved commercial audio rights. Under threat of legal action, Amazon backed off, leaving the decision to speech-activate Kindle texts up to content owners. Many publishers opted out. Random House was one of them.

Now, The Reading Rights Coalition, representing more than 15 million visually challenged Americans, has censured Random House for denying audio service to its constituents. “When Random House turned off the text-to-speech function on all of its e-books for the Kindle 2,” declared Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, “it turned off access to this service for more than 15 million print-disabled Americans. The blind and other print-disabled readers have the right to purchase e-books using this service with text-to-speech enabled. Blocking text-to-speech prohibits access for print-disabled readers and is both reprehensible and discriminatory.” Maurer was joined by executives of Lighthouse International, American Association of People with Disabilities, National Spinal Cord Injury Association, American Council of the Blind and other organizations in denunciations of Random. A petition is being circulated.

It would be unspeakably callous to disregard the needs of the blind and reading-disabled. And that’s the point: book publishers have always been in the vanguard of industries sensitive to the needs of the visually challenged. Language guaranteeing to them free access to published books is a standard feature of every book contract I have ever seen. A recent Random House contract says, “Random House shall have the right to grant transcription or publication rights in any Work in Braille or other non-book formats specifically for the visually impaired without charge.” The subsidiary rights grant in a HarperCollins contract on my desk grants Harper “Braille, large-type and other editions for the handicapped (the Publisher may grant such rights to recognized non-profit organizations for the handicapped without charge and without payment to the Author).” I’m ready to bet that every one of the thousands of contracts in our agency’s files has similar language.

I don’t think the leadership of the Reading Rights Coalition is doing its members a favor by attacking publishers, who have been victimized by Amazon/Kindle’s audio initiative just as severely as the visually impaired. There is a line between a function intended for the disabled and one designed for fully sighted and literate. Amazon’s aggressive step across that line put publishers on the horns of a cruel dilemma: by withholding audio rights from Kindle they deny service to a genuinely needy population; but by enabling Kindle’s audio feature they deprive legitimate copyright holders of the opportunity to exploit a commercial right. They also incur liability: a publisher can be sued by authors whose commercial audio rights had been given away to Amazon. And because that threat of liability is ever-present to Random House and its brother and sister publishers, it’s not likely that petitions or humanitarian appeals (including to President Obama) will gain any traction.

What’s the answer? We must come up with a voice-enabling technology expressly targeted to the handicapped, and segregate it from commercial audio. That’s not a job for publishers. It’s a job for technologists, and we wish them godspeed in solving the problem.

Amazon should be in the forefront of those supporting such an initiative, because there are 15 million visually impaired individuals ready to buy a device that serves them what they need and are entitled to. If Amazon doesn’t or can’t do the job – well, there are a lot of e-book devices coming on stream, and the one that solves this audio dilemma will have a huge advantage and a ready-made market.

For the Coalition’s full statement click here.

Pictured: The HumanWare VictorReader Stream digital-audio player for the blind.

Richard Curtis

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3 Responses to The Big Turnoff: Furor Over Kindle Audio Puts Random Between Rock and Hard Place

  1. J. M. Strother says:

    There already is a technology that gives the visually impaired access to the written word: Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, found at http://www.rfbd.org/ . The CDs are in a special compressed encoding scheme that make them unplayable on standard CD players. The players also allow for bookmarking.

    I still think the Author's Guild made the wrong decision on the text-to-speech issue. An audio book is a true performance. A machine reading text is not. But I can understand their concern.
    ~jon

  2. Brent Knowles says:

    I think ultimately what many authors are worried about is the possiblity of the Kindle’s text to speech approaching “a true performance”.

    This technology has radically improved and will continue to shrink the bar between real actors and digital.

    Would poor but free text-to-speech make me stop buying audio books? No.

    Would a mediocre but free text-to-speech make me stop? Absolutely.

    I think the Kindle should be able to play any audio book with poor text-to-speech results. Publishers should be opting in or out of whether they allow free “better than poor” performances.

    This way the visually impaired would have access to the books, but the chances of (me) stopping my audio book purchases would be pretty slim.

  3. Tomlin says:

    I think you miss the point
    I’m not challenged
    but I want the right
    to have my books read to me
    Random House chose to withdraw that
    unilaterally
    rather than leave it up to the author
    Well I vote with my feet
    No Random House

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