Amazon Caves on Kindle:

Amazon has modified its new Kindle 2, the subject of a somewhat over-heated copyright dispute that I commented on earlier, so that its new "text-to-speech" functionality will be enabled/disabled at the option of the publisher -- i.e., that each publisher will get to decide for itself, when licensing books for Kindle sale, whether to allow it to be "spoken" through the S-2-T processor or not. Not good news for the consumer, it seems to me -- although if Amazon makes it clear, when you're purchasing Kindle books, whether the S-2-T functionality works or not on that particular title, it's probably a wash for most of us [though not for the blind or the partially blind -- they lose, in this deal]

[thanks to Tom Hynes for the pointer]

CDU (mail) (www):
Grounds for a lawsuit under the ADA, perhaps?
3.2.2009 9:17am
Good thought CDU -- maybe that will get some traction on this nonsense.
3.2.2009 9:54am
DiverDan (mail):
Since Amazon has reduced the functionality of the Kindle 2, I think any prospective purchaser needs to demand a meaningful discount from the list price. Show Amazon that there is a price to pay for its cowardice in the face of the Authors' Guild's blackmail.
3.2.2009 9:58am
I agree that Amazon is being overly deferential to a stupid legal position, but it seems to me that protests would be more properly directed towards the bully in this situation, which is the Author's Guild. Any letters should be directed to the publishers to encourage that they allow blind users to listen to their books. Having heard the Kindle's text to speech in action, I doubt there are many sighted people who would opt to listen to it in lieu of audiobooks.
3.2.2009 10:46am
Spoken books are useful to the sighted as well as the blind, i.e., when driving or doing tasks that require one's focus to be elsewhere. From the photo, it doesn't look comfortable to hold either sitting or lying down. No back light is another draw back. I've been waiting for a good reader for years and can't understand why it's so difficult to conger one up.
3.2.2009 10:46am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Amazon should post a very PROMINENT disclaimer at several points in any web page selling Kindle content, if that content is restricted from being read aloud by the publisher. Something like:

"WARNING: The publisher of this material has chosen to force Amazon to disable the Kindle's text-to-speech function. If you purchase this content, your Kindle will not be able to read it out loud to you."

Heck, I'd add a last little mandatory checkbox, where the purchaser has to acknowledge that he is aware of the limitation being imposed by the publisher.
3.2.2009 10:49am
Here are some Authors Guild's Kindle TTS samples. It sounds better than MacInTalk's "Vicki" but not as good as "Alex". Worse than AT&T's Natural Voices.
3.2.2009 11:08am
Elliot123 (mail):
"I've been waiting for a good reader for years and can't understand why it's so difficult to conger one up."

Try it. (I concede comfort is purely personal, and there's no definitive answer.) I have read about sixty books over 18 months on the Sony Reader, and immediately found it much more comfortable than a normal book. First, there is no need to use your hand to keep pages from closing. Sitting and prone positions are easier than with a book. That probably doesn't sound like a big deal until you experience it. For me it was.

Second, it carries all the books I am currently reading.

Third, when I want a book, I just order it online and have it immediately; no trip to the bookstore or Amazon order. The Sony needa a computer and uses the iTunes ordering model. The Kindle doesn't need a computer.

However, I do not use it for anything other than narrative. I don't find it useful for anything with quantitative information since I frequently flip back to previous pages of data and graphs when reading that material.

In terms of backlighting, it's a function of battery weight and life. Digital ink screens can last much longer between charges than a backlit screen. The screen requires the same lighting as a regular book, and can easily be read in direct sunlight with no glare.

The only option I would suggest to manufacturers is a small, handheld BlueTooth "clicker" that would turn pages so I don't even have to touch the unit.
3.2.2009 11:21am
Tex. Lawyer:

If some enterprising hacker figures out a way to bypass the publisher's limitation on the reader, would bypassing it violate DMCA?
3.2.2009 11:27am
3.2.2009 11:33am
Bob Goodman (mail) (www):
I first read the title as referring to Kindle's documenting caves dug or occupied by Amazons.
3.2.2009 11:57am
It seems to me like this is a perfectly reasonable thing for Amazon to do. The cost of fighting the lawsuit is just not worth the functionality increase. As stated above, the Authors Guild is the proper entity to be upset with.
3.2.2009 11:58am
[not a lawyer] Bypassing the limitation on the reader should violate the DMCA. The provision (USC 12 §1200 (a)(1)(A)) reads:
No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.

These works are copyrightable, and the technology controls the access. That the access is for a purpose of exercising a right not reserved to the copyright owner is irrelevant (otherwise CCS-craking tools would be legal).

That said, the DMCA allows the Librarian of Congress to create exemptions (renewable every three years), and one such is for accessibility to the disabled. You can find the current rules (to expire October 27, 2009) here. In particular there is an exemption for:

4. Literary works distributed in ebook format when all existing ebook editions of the work (including digital text editions made available by authorized entities) contain access controls that prevent the enabling either of the book's read-aloud function or of screen readers that render the text into a specialized format.
3.2.2009 12:26pm
Scote (mail):
I think Amazon owes refunds to those people who bought the Kindle for the Text to Speech feature. Retroactively downgrading a devices features is, IMO, unethical.
3.2.2009 12:34pm
TomHynes (mail):
This is a very nice example of the Coase Theorem working. As long as the parties (writers and Amazon) can bargain, it doesn't matter what the initial conditions are.

We should celebrate it as another example of technology expanding the free market.
3.2.2009 12:53pm
Gerriet S (mail):
I'm not quite sure what the actual effect of this concession will be. It's conceivable that media attention or other marketing efforts, like the Disclaimer mentioned above, might mean that Amazon and the consumer won this battle on practical grounds, and without a lawsuit.
3.2.2009 12:58pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
I personally suspect that no TTS will become the default, certainly that is the case with the MS Reader e-books I have. (When I could see I was very happy with that product.)

My understanding about the kindle however is that even with TTS it is not a particularly accessible device. I may be wrong about that, but such is my understanding.
3.2.2009 1:26pm
karl m (mail):
Same question as CDU
I would like to see Gerrirt is right but the lawsuit against a mothher of three by the music companies means he wont.
They even brought a lawsuit against scout girls forbiddeen them to sing pop song without paying fees
3.2.2009 2:03pm
PatHMV wrote at:
Amazon should post a very PROMINENT disclaimer at several points in any web page selling Kindle content, ...
Exactly. Name names -- the publisher and The Writers' Guild. If the potential buyers have complete information, the market will let the publishers and authors know what buyers think about their nonsense.

When they start ranting about suing Amazon with trumped up strained causes of action for the full disclosure, we'll know who has won.
3.2.2009 2:06pm
I think the Author's Guild is fighting a loosing battle, but more to the point, their premise is twisted. The author contracts with the publisher. The author is providing the story or content. The publisher is providing the medium, the bound book, etc. I don't think the Author's guild has a stable position.

The publisher's have a better one. The medium they are providing is aimed at a reading audience or a listening audience.

I think the publishers would have a better place to argue it, but even then, it is not beneficial. The PR behind demanding special fees for a special version aimed at the disabled audience ought to be enough to put this to rest.

Clearly, having one device capable of serving two audiences is hardly a deprivation of profit for either author or publisher. It simplifies things.

The audience bought the device and should be able to use it as it was designed to be used, to know the content. Whether it goes in through the eyes or the ears is not a proper legal premise to my way of thinking.

All these copyright issues related to medium are destined to lose in long-run. The more they fight for every nickle they were able to pocket due to the restrictions inherent in the non-technical medium, the more they generate resentment and piracy in the audience that used to willingly part with that nickle.

Frankly, they deserve to lose it.
3.2.2009 2:28pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"No back light is another draw back. I've been waiting for a good reader for years and can't understand why it's so difficult to conger one up."

A back light makes no sense for this kind of technology. I have a Kindle 2 and I find the contrast between the text and the background wanting. Unless you read in a strong light it does not find as comfortable as real paper. I'm going to give it chance, but at this point I'm inclined to return it.
3.2.2009 2:53pm
Colin (mail):
Soronel, I'm afraid you're right about the Kindle's accessibility. The TTS function is better than I expected - good enough to use on the treadmill, or while walking to work - but doesn't seem to work on the menus. Without that, it's hard to see how a visually-impaired person could get much use out of a Kindle. On the other hand, that seems like an easy fix, and I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon implemented it in a patch.
3.2.2009 3:16pm
Well, Post, this just proves Bezos is a savvier businessman than you. Notice your description of Amazon, "caving" to the evil forces of publishing, and notice all the commenters saying the real villain are these dark forces.

I'd say Amazon has scored a nice PR coup. People who wouldn't even have bothered about the text to speech feature will now be pissed at the Author's Guild and writing them nasty letters, posting on their blogs, whatever, because one thing people hate is being told they can't do something -- even if, willy nilly, they actually had no plans to do it.

So Amazon successfully, at zero cost to themselves, removes themselves from the middle of a sticky situation and directs their huge numbers of customers at an opponent that has given them trouble. The likely result (consumers motivated to protest the AG, the AG backing down) is to get Amazon a deal with the authors that is much better than what they could get now.

Very smart people. Buy Amazon stock, folks.
3.2.2009 3:19pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
Uhh, if you were blind would it really make sense to buy a kindle in the first place.

I mean surely some people might share one with a sighted friend but is the kindle really cheaper than the all audio alternatives?
3.2.2009 4:22pm
Gary McGath (www):
I don't care about the Kindle particularly, but Amazon's giving in sets a moral precedent in favor of the bullies. They can go after any text-to-speech software, claiming it "violates copyright." Amazon probably caved in not because it feared a lawsuit but because it feared loss of material licensed by publishers. The Authors' Guild can't win in court, but it can continue to go after weak targets.
3.2.2009 4:51pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):

I mean surely some people might share one with a sighted friend but is the kindle really cheaper than the all audio alternatives?

I am a blind person who has been seeking a method to access printed material, I honestly don't like human narration. Human speech is too slow, with TTS software the reading speed can be adjusted to the user's preference.

Last year I tried a scanner with optical character recognition but that turned out to require a great deal of editting after the material was scanned. It got close, but the mistakes were very jarring. A sighted user would likely be able to skip over those blemishes fairly easy, but the TTS speaks everything so mistakes stand out much more.

TTS is actually also very good for self-editing for that same reason, your ears don't slip over the mistakes nearly as easily as eyes.
3.2.2009 5:39pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
All of that is to say that audio books are not an acceptable substitute. I go without rather than use audio
3.2.2009 5:45pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
Each reader, in choosing what to purchase, will now consider whether he gets the work with TTS or not, and factor that into the purchasing decision. Those authors and publishers that permit TTS will make more money, and the market will compel almost all publishers to allow it on the Kindle or other such devices.
3.2.2009 6:05pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Jon Roland,

You might think that but so far the publishers have been mighty united against TTS features in other e-book products. They seem very set on trying to sell audio books, even to people like myself who won't buy them and so don't buy any books. My book purchases dropped from over $4k/year to zero after I went blind.

Although I will also admit that many of the subjects I purchased books for (computer programming as an example) do not translate well to speech. Tables and figures do not render well.
3.2.2009 6:36pm
godelmetric (mail):

Grounds for a lawsuit under the ADA, perhaps?

The copyright argument was always questionable. But this is an interesting bit of lateral thinking, though I can't speak to the actual merits.
3.2.2009 7:36pm
Grover Gardner (mail):

Grounds for a lawsuit under the ADA, perhaps?

How so? Can a disabled person sue Apple for not making the iPhone more friendly to disabled persons? What about a TV remote with no Braille on the buttons? What about homebuilders who don't offer handicapped facilities in every house they build? Does public access for the disabled extend to every product on the market today?
3.2.2009 10:52pm
As far as an ADA suit, I think we might distinguish between installing special accommodations and erecting barriers aimed at the disabled. Shutting off a functionality that already exists is closer to erecting a barrier. Sounds fruitful to me.
3.3.2009 11:12am
A Zarkov: I have a Kindle 2 and I find the contrast between the text and the background wanting. Unless you read in a strong light it does not find as comfortable as real paper.

Maybe one of the clip-on booklight thingies would work?
3.4.2009 11:24am

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