Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Knockout in the First Round

In response to the Authors Guild's strident demands that Amazon eliminate the text to speech function on the Kindle, The National Federation of the Blind has initiated a very sharp and fierce protest, saying that disabling the text to speech function severely discriminates against the blind, seeing impaired and dyslexic. As these two interest groups square off, it appears that one may be entirely outmatched.

So! Says the Author's Guild. That text to speech function sure is nice, but it infringes on our copyright, and and ability to earn royalties from audio books.

Yes! Says the National Institute for the Blind. But taking away this function eliminates our ability to ever engage hundreds of thousands of works.

It's like the last Democratic Presidential Primary all over again. What to do when special interest groups go to war over who is more aggrieved? Last year it was Women vs. the African American Community, and depending on who you supported, you were either racist or sexist. But for a long time, the two sides were pretty evenly matched.

But in this instance, I think the Author's Guild doesn't stand a chance.

In the case of Writers vs. The Blind, Seeing Impaired & Dyslexic, there is no way the writers can win. It's undeniable that many, many books never make their way to braille or audio format. The Kindle has, for perhaps the first time in history, eliminated the great barrier in education and access to common culture separating those who can see well from those who cannot.

To the seeing impaired, the Kindle is a lot like Andrew Carnegie, going about the country bestowing the gift of words on those who had forever been denied the privilege. The United States, and Canada, are the way they are in great part because of the democratization of access to books through the public library system.

Back in my undergrad days, I worked a job that was sort of like Para-Transpo. I helped clients with disabilities drive or walk to where they needed to go. One of those clients was blind, and we became friends. He was Japanese, and years later we even met for coffee in Tokyo... The point is, I got a glimpse of how limited his access to information was. To get text to speech required being at a computer with expensive software. And what with the time he needed to get ready, get to class, and go about his daily activities, he couldn't simply flick through the news, or dip into a book for a few minutes. On the go, there was nothing. He used an old tape Walkman for audio books, but nobody publishes the Journal of Psychology in audio format. The daily newspaper isn't in audio format. Macleans doesn't have an audio only version.

The legitimate uses of the Kindle's text-to-speech technology by far outweigh any damaging effect the technology might have on royalties to authors of fiction and non-fiction. So much so that there is no way they could ever even hope to win their argument on its merits, because IP law in this regard is crystal clear. If the authors guild pushed it, there is no way that writers supporting this action could escape the labels "greedy" and "self-interested."

And even if you make the case that a blind person has the option of buying the audiobook of a particular work, you are asking him or her to pay a 50% premium (Disability Tax, anyone?) for a work they could buy for less and engage with available technology.

So whatever you might feel about possible lost royalties, or whatever, you have to decide between letting the issue be, or being seen as a real tool.

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