April 6, 2009  ·  Lessig

On Tuesday, April 7, the National Federation of the Blind will protest in front of the Authors Guild headquarters, at 31 East 32nd Street, New York City. The protest criticizes the Authors Guild’s bullying of Amazon to get them to shut of the Text-to-Speech functionality on the Kindle 2. The Authors Guild demands that blind people wanting this added and enabling technology must either submit to a burdensome special registration system and prove their disabilities or pay extra for the text-to-speech version.

Read more about the protest here.

The Authors Guild — once again, working hard to make the work of all but the wealthiest authors less valuable.

  • Zelbinian

    Someone ought to remind the Authors Guild about section 508. Accessibility is not a choice.

  • http://www.TheWritingVein.com Dot

    Thank you for bringing this blatant discrimination to our attention. As Zelbinian said, it’s the law. Besides that, it’s inappropriate. If profit were the motive, how about having the sighted readers have to go through a rigorous test to prove their ability to read and comprehend the texts, and then register them as valid users.

    The Author’s Guild?! geesh.

  • http://plankhead.com Zacqary Adam Green

    It’s even more ridiculous that the Guild asserts that “Kindle 2 isn’t designed for” blind people (last paragraph). This protest is evidence that actual blind people who quite literally do not have vision disagree with that idea.

    In any case, I’ll probably stop by the protest just to show my support.

  • Sneeje

    @ Zelbinian

    While I agree with your sentiments, Section 508 does not apply unless the vendors in question are trying to sell to the Federal Government.

  • http://www.three-brothers.net Dan

    This seems absolutely crazy! It just seems un-American to try to force a company to change a product in this way.

    3 Brothers Billiards

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    This post, from on of the “best” blogs online is a good example of why President Obama wisely does not waste his time readiing any blogs.

    It’s not the established Federation of the Blind, but some new group – looks like just a website formed a few days ago.

    Here are some questions even a sub-Palin reporter would ask:

    What is this new group?
    Who formed this new group?
    Is it an astroturf group?
    What are the other sides of the issue?
    What are the “unreasonable burdens” place on the blind? or are the online folks just like George in Seinfeld to lazy to read books. (But I have to hand to it George, he did read unlike many online:
    Is this a cheap attempt to exploint the blind for a cause?
    If we let anyone claim they were blind, what would happen?

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    Here is what the opposite side would claim if they were as low :

    “The Blind Thank Lessig for Taking Away Their Books”

    (Lessig and his free culture have reduced the incetives for people to produce books)

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    Before one goes about exploiting the blind, I would hope that someone beside a lawyer does a cost benefit-analysis of the potential to help the blind:

    The upside to the blind: The blind Kindle owners (and all you other freeloaders) don’t have to spend a few minutes apply for the disability exception.

    The possible downside to the blind: Publishers stop producing quality audio books since one can get a cheap (inferior) copy and the blind are stuck listening to robot speech.

    I can’t see how the blind would have a need to see a Kindle, and would rather have the text read on their computers. And why are publisher afraid to distribute digital copies?

  • Cindy

    If you would like to help keep the text to speech on the Kindle 2, please go to http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/We-Want-To-Read and sign the petition. Over 4700 have already!

    Thanks.

  • Jardinero1

    To me, it’s a matter of principle. We have to stand up to these unions and their attempt to control the means of production. Damn the unions and all the other special interest groups.

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    ” We have to stand up to these unions and their attempt to control the means of production. Damn the unions “

    Since Obama owes the unions and may actually like them (it’s hard to tell with lawyers and politicians), you will likely be in for a few years of unions running wild.

  • The Chriso

    @ Steve Baba:

    So what do we do Steve go back to etching books in stone so the bland can read books by feeling the wall?

    I don’t see what Larry been a Lawyer has to do with this issue. The issue is that the accessibility for the visual impaired are been singled out as a political campaign against the electronic distribution of books. This is an attempt by Authors Guild to stop progress and have their head in the sand about technology. They haven’t learnt any thing from the work of people like Larry Lessig.

    You may need to review you views of what Larry is about and start to learn about the new world we live in.

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    “So what do we do Steve go back to etching books in stone so the bland can read books by feeling the wall?”

    come on, even a lawyer can think of a better solution which I thought was obvious:

    If publishers did not have to worry about privacy, like people asking for pirated copies on the author’s own page, the vast majority of publishers would have donated free digital copies to the blind and the blind would be reading/hearing now.

    On this Easter Sunday, perhaps you should reflect that you are not only stealing from authors, but stealing books from the blind.

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    This is also another example of, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    I doublt that Lessig or pirates thought they would end up with the unintended consequece of stealing books from the blind, but it happens.

  • http://spaz.mindstab.net/ Mike Levens

    If you’ve purchased the right to read a book, haven’t you also purchased the right to have that book read to you, by whatever human or machine you might have at your disposal?

    @Steve:

    The possible downside to the blind: Publishers stop producing quality audio books since one can get a cheap (inferior) copy and the blind are stuck listening to robot speech.

    Hang on there. Is it the case that:
    a) human-voice audiobooks are superior enough in value to robot audiobooks, that the blind will be “stuck” with inferior material, or
    b) robot-voice audiobooks satisfy people’s needs SO WELLl enough that they’ll displace human ones in the market and the publishers will stop producing them?

    You can’t have it both ways. Either the difference in quality is enough to pay for, or it isn’t.

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    “haven’t you also purchased the right to have that book read to you, by whatever human or machine you might have at your disposal?”

    This is an OPEN question and the answer should depend on what is best for society. (you do realize that by forcing one price, the Kindle price will likely rise since it’s now the lowest)

    As for your second point, the blind don’t have to pay (even the postage) for most for the read-for-the-blind programs. I don’t think the blind should have to pay, but it’s up to the charity of most publishers, nonprofits and government programs (and yes to rule out people like Seinfeld’s George, you should have to prove your disablity)

    Does anyone know one blind person who spendt $400 for a Kindle to read who is upset, or is just some cheap astroturf fake group of upset Kindle-owning yuppies, that does not know much about established blind programs, using what every angle they can?

  • Charlotte Petsopoulos

    I am a narrator for the Libary of Congress’s library for the blind and physically handicapped in Philadelphia and I totally agree with some of the above comments that blind people should not be subjected to such rigorous registation procedures in order to obtain materials. They already often have to wait for books that they need for work or study purposes, plesure reading aside, until we narrators are able to complete the texts. Furthermore I know that the demise of the human narrator in favour of ‘robot style’ synthesized voice audio books would obliterate the joy of listening to books for pleasure. So please lets not make it any more difficult for the blind to access reading materials we sighted people take for granted!!

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    I doubt any of you besides Charlotte are real advocates for the blind, but if any of you are looking for an example of reading for the blind being useful, the author (I can’t vouch for the content since it’s not my field) of the book Hunting Eichmann on Book TV last weekend writes that it was a combination of a young woman (an amateur also, not a pro Nazi hunter) who happend to date Eichmann’s son and her reading to her blind father that lead to Eichmann’s capture:

    There is also some link to the show on booktv.org if you are blind or just can’t read because of too much time online. From Book TV:

    Neal Bascomb recounts the fifteen-year search for and capture of Adolf Eichmann in Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivor’s and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. Mr. Bascomb chronicles the SS officer’s life under a false identity in Argentina and the worldwide manhunt that led to his capture. Neal Bascomb discusses his book with Elizabeth Holtzman, former democratic congresswoman from New York, and the author of the Holtzman Amendment that pursues deportation of Nazi war criminals as well as denies them immigration to the United States.

    ———————————–
    also if Kindles are really better for the blind than computers (which can be obtained from corporate donations of there used computers) some of you Web 2.0 groups might want to start a Kindles For The Blind, instead of exploiting the blind in your gripe with Amazon and publishers.

  • Florian K.

    @Steve Baba: This “cheap astroturf fake group of upset Kindle-owning yuppies, that does not know much about established blind programs” is supported by the National Federation for the Blind, among others – the protest against the Author’s Guild is still featured prominently on their home page, http://www.nfb.org/.

    Are you now going to tell us that the NFB (founded in 1940 and describing itself as having “more than 50,000 members” and being “the largest and most influential membership organization of blind people in the United States”) is a fake group too?

    In the meantime, the Associated Press, the Baltimore Sun and Publishers Weekly have reported about these protests. Do you consider them “sub-Palin reporters” (whatever that means)?

  • http://www.hshco.com David E Y Sarna

    I am a member of the Author’s Guild. While I am in favor of free and easy text to speech for the blind, However, I believe that the Author’s Guild is trying (perhaps mistakenly) to protect the vast number of their member who don’t write best-sellers and who struggle to eke out a living from their writing. the statement that “The Authors Guild — once again, working hard to make the work of all but the wealthiest authors less valuable.” is, in mu judgment, erroneous and does a dis-service to the Guild and its members.

  • http://spaz.mindstab.net/ Mike Levens

    @Steve:

    My second point had nothing to do with blind people at all. If, as you say, the audiobooks for the blind are provided by the goodwill of the publishers, then they aren’t a revenue stream anyway. My point was about those ‘Kindle-owning yuppies’.

    Clearly there are some sighted people out there too who want to be able to hear their data rather than see it. In your opinion, which of these two cases is more likely?

    a) Kindle-owning yuppies who want to hear their data instead of see it are only willing to pay the cheap Kindlebook price rather than the higher one for a human-made audiobook, because they don’t find listening to a robot voice all that irritating, or

    b) Kindle-owning yuppies who want to hear their data instead of see it are so spoiled that they can’t bear the irritation of that damn soulless monotone voice when they listen to Oprah’s latest pick in the car, and are willing to pay the premium for a nice, comforting human tone.

    If a, then it’s not clear to me how much value the human audiobooks provided to the blind anyway. Since the publisher could never profitably produce enough audiobook material to cover everything a blind person might want to read, I expect blind people are already stuck listening to robo-voices most of the time if they want to read anything too far off the beaten path, unless they’re lucky enough to have a friend or a volunteer at their disposal.

    If b, then human audiobooks will always have a place in the market, at least for as long as text-to-speech software remains irritating-sounding. The blind will continue to have the benefit of proper recordings for only that material which the publisher can profitably sell to the Oprah-in-the-car set, and that set will keep on paying for that material.

    As for what would benefit society most, I’ll only point out that if our goal was to provide the widest possible array of human-voice material for the blind, then we could hardly do better than a crowd-sourced solution. As you point out, the publishers themselves are the bottleneck; If they can’t make the audiobook profitably, then they won’t make it. If we instead freed the publishers of that burden and set an army of amateurs and volunteers to the task of recording any book for which there was a demand, the potential benefits for accessibility are I think pretty obvious.

    Of course, that solution is a totally unrealistic pipe dream, mainly because of copyright. But if the world was really concerned about accessibility issues above protecting the copyright holders’ revenue streams, this problem would be trivial.

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    “If we instead freed the publishers of that burden and set an army of amateurs and volunteers to the task of recording any book for which there was a demand, the potential benefits for accessibility are I think pretty obvious.

    Of course, that solution is a totally unrealistic pipe dream, mainly because of copyright.”

    Feel free to volunteer at one of the established reading for the blind programs instead of bitching or exploiting the blind in your anti-copyright crusade:

    Currently, RFB&D is facing a shortage of specialized readers proficient in math, science, finance, accounting, computer science, foreign languages, and other technical areas. We also are in need of volunteers to read general K-12 titles.

    http://www.rfbd.org/support_1.htm

  • http://spaz.mindstab.net/ Mike Levens

    I don’t doubt that they’re facing a shortage. Perhaps they wouldn’t be, if one volunteer were allowed to read a book to a thousand listeners rather than to just one or a small handful.

    The anime fansub community has a lot to teach us about this issue. Here is a broad wealth of audiovisual material, all of it in Japanese, and inaccessible to a small but passionate market of American viewers. The Japanese producers don’t have the resources or inclination to subtitle it all in English, but English speakers want to watch it.

    So a grassroots community of translators crops up and takes it on the problem itself, and produces unauthorized versions of this anime which are accessible to English-speakers.

    Imagine if, instead, this volunteer community decided to provide this type of service, but only legally. A translator can show up to a screening of an imported anime, and /manually/ type out the subtitles on a projector as the lines are spoken. And once the film is over, the translator’s work is deleted (because saving it would constitute an unauthorized derivative work!). The next time anyone else wants to watch that same movie with English subtitles, another translator’s services will be required.

    I think that community would very quickly face a volunteer shortage too. I certainly wouldn’t stick around if my efforts were being squandered in this way.

  • http://spaz.mindstab.net/ Mike Levens

    Actually, I stand self-corrected. You characterized your link as “reading for the blind” but the acronym on that site is actually “recording for the blind.” This appears to be exactly the sort of work model I was suggesting.

    So, given that this already exists, I’m not sure why the audiobooks-for-yuppies market is being touted as any sort of support system for the blind at all. RFB&D already seems to focus on an array of books far broader than what the for-profit market could ever cover profitably, as evidenced by their asking for readers with all this domain-specific knowledge.

    This being the case, how would a collapse of the audiobook market hurt the blind, exactly? It’s not like Kindle yuppies were buying a lot of math- and computer-science-intensive audiobooks in the first place, and it’s not like the very narrow catalog of audiobooks which publishers /do/ produce would be all that much work for volunteers to replace.

  • Bob Martinengo

    Just fyi, RFB&D has been laying off staff and closing studios due to financial woes.