The ongoing controversy regarding Kindle II’s read to me function has taken some interesting twists and turns over the past few months. Recall that Kindle II was released back in March of 2009. This personal reading device offered the user the capability to have books read out loud via computerized voice much like the screen readers we use every day. The Author’s Guild balked at this feature claiming copyright infringement. Then, Amazon offered authors the option to disable this feature for their titles. For more on the Kindle II see my blog at Amazon Stumbles into Partial Accessibility with Kindle 2
The past few months have brought about two developments which I would say are very positive for persons with print disabilities. Firstly, the Reading Rights Coalition was established in order to encourage Amazon to make the Kindle II truly accessible and to convince authors to allow the “read to me” function to work on their titles. Secondly, the Reading Rights Coalition has facilitated support for a treaty being considered by the United Nation’s World Intellectual Property Organization that would facilitate the transfer of electronic documents and documents in specialized formats for persons with print disabilities by easing copyright restrictions.
Formation of the Reading Writes Coalition
Shortly after Amazon announced that it would allow publishers and authors to turn off the “read to me” function on the Kindle II, Daniel Goldstein, an attorney representing the National Federation of the Blind tried to negotiate with the Author’s Guild in an attempt to convince the Guild that anyone who pays for a Kindle book should have the right to listen to the book using Kindle II’s text to speech function. Goldstein pointed out to the Authors Guild that allowing this function might actually increase author profits as blind and visually impaired persons would then purchase books which were not available in any other accessible formats. The Authors Guild would not budge. At that point, in early March, the NFB sparked the creation of the Reading Rights Coalition. It is the mission of the Coalition to increase the availability of books in alternative formats to persons with print disabilities. The Coalition promotes the idea of persons with print disabilities paying for titles on devices such as the Kindle II and then being able to read them in the same time frame enjoyed by print readers. The coalition now has 33 members. Here is a partial list of members: American Foundation for the Blind, American Council of the Blind, National Federation of the Blind, Lighthouse International, American Association of People with Disabilities, Arc of the United States, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, DAISY Consortium, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, International Dyslexia Association, National Spinal Cord Injury Association and United Cerebral Palsy. As you can see, this coalition is made up of a wide variety of organizations representing persons with print disabilities.
On April 7, the Coalition organized a well-attended protest outside the headquarters of the Authors Guild in New York City to spotlight this issue. The Coalition argued that anyone who pays for an eBook for a device such as the Kindle II should have the right to listen to the text read by a text to speech device. Coalition members pointed out that the new “read to me” function of the Kindle II would increase author profits as persons with print disabilities would purchase titles not yet available in accessible formats. One of their protest signs read “ Don’t Gag the Kindle, Throw the E-book at the Authors Guild”. Apparently, the Authors Guild chose not to respond to the Coalition’s protest.
The coalition has also promoted an online petition that has garnered 7424 signatures. This petition urges Amazon to reconsider its decision to allow authors and publishers to turn off the text to speech capabilities and opposes the Author’s Guild demand that caused Amazon to take this position. If you have not already signed this petition please do so at www.thepetitionsite.com/1/We-Want-To-Read
On May 20, the Reading Rights Coalition put out a press release denouncing the decision of Random House to turn off text to speech on all of its Kindle titles. It contains quotes from the presidents of both the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind. The press release urged president Barack Obama whose books are published by Random House to put pressure on the publisher to urge them to reconsider this decision. To learn more about the Reading Rights Coalition, go to www.readingrights.org.
On May 25, Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay introduced a treaty proposal to the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization. Originally introduced by the World Blind Union in October of 2008, this treaty would facilitate the transfer of electronic documents and documents in specialized formats across national borders for the purpose of increasing the availability of books for persons with print disabilities. This treaty would ease copyright restrictions which presently hamper the ability of organizations in developed nations to transfer their specialized format books to persons with print disabilities living in less developed nations. To illustrate, if this treaty were approved by the WIPO, organizations such as the National Library Service for the blind and Physically Handicapped in the United States and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind could offer their titles to persons with print disabilities in South America, Asia and Africa without obtaining special permission from copyright holders. While we who live in developed nations complain about the small percentage of books available in accessible formats, we might consider the plight of less developed nations where books in accessible formats are extremely rare. To learn more about the proposed treaty, go to Treaty to Increase Availability of Accessible books In Third World
Publishers in the United States, Canada and Europe quickly expressed their disapproval of this proposal. An article in the Huffington Post indicated that these publishers exerted tremendous pressure on the governments of the United States, Europe and Canada to block this proposal. To read the article, go to Obama joins group to block treaty for blind and other reading
Here’s where the Reading Rights Coalition swung into action. This recently formed coalition was able to generate pressure upon the governments of the United States, Canada and Europe urging them to support the proposal. On June 5, The United States, Canada and the European Union agreed not to block this proposal despite all the pressure from publishers and the WIPO agreed to continue to work on the proposal with the aim of increasing reading material for persons with print disabilities living in South America, Asia and Africa. Three cheers for the Reading Rights Coalition! For further details, go to Copyright treaty backing e-books for disabled readers survives US and EU resistance
All of this brings a big smile to my face! That’s right folks! Score a major victory for advocates for persons with print disabilities over publishers who would put personal profit over making their works available to us who cannot read the printed word. It was feared that president Obama might cave in to pressure from these publishers. But Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy expressed his support for the proposed treaty in a blog written by Jim Fruchterman, founder of BookShare. To read his blog, go to Dale supports WIPO Treaty While this is a victory, the battle will not be won until this proposal is approved by the WIPO. As always, we advocates must be ever vigilant.