Will this law end the blocking of text-to-speech?

Will this law end the blocking of text-to-speech?

“In general- With respect to equipment manufactured after the effective date of the regulations established pursuant to subsection (e), and subject to those regulations, a manufacturer of equipment used for advanced communications services, including end user equipment, network equipment, and software, shall ensure that the equipment and software that such manufacturer offers for sale or otherwise distributes in interstate commerce shall be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, unless the requirements of this subsection are not achievable.”
–Section 716 (1) (a) of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010

This act, signed into law by the President on October 8, 2010, may be used by advocates for the print disabled to force publishers to stop blocking text-to-speech in Kindle store editions of e-books.

I’ve written before about the blocking of text-to-speech access, and there were a number of elements involved:

  • Text-to-speech is not the same as an audiobook (because it is not recorded), and the same reservation of rights by a rightsholder do not apply
  • Publishers are required to have at least one version of every book that has “read aloud” enabled.  That edition can require certification of a print disability (such as the books available from http://www.bookshare.org
  • It was legal for Amazon to provide text-to-speech without prior permission: however, it is also legal for publishers to block it (as long as at least one other edition exists that has “read aloud” enabled

That’s all based on my understanding of relevant statements from the U.S. Copyright Office.

This law, however, adds another factor…one which organizations may use to try to compel publishers to stop blocking text-to-speech access in Kindle editions. 

The law was sponsored by Senator Mark Pryor (Democrat of Arkansas), and had five co-sponsors, including some well-known names: Democrats Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan (North Dakota), John Kerry (Massachusetts: former Presidential candidate, member of a variety of committees, Chair of the important Senate Committee on Foreign Relations), Charles “Chuck’ Schumer (New York; Chair of two committees, Vice Chair of two others, member of several more); and Republican John Ensign (Nevada, sits on several committees including Communications and Technology).  Ensign and Kerry, in particular, represent different political factions…this suggests that the Act has broad-based support.

 At first glance, it may appear that the Act applies to things like telephones.  Does it apply to e-books?

Well, one of the questions is whether e-books are software.  The Kindle can do “read aloud”, so it has met the requirement.  Since the e-books are delivered across state lines, if they are considered software, it would seem they would be subject to the act.

President Obama seems to indicate this is going to cover a wide range of devices.  He says:

“This legislation will make it easier for people who are deaf, blind, or live with a visual impairment to use the technology our 21st-century economy depends on, from navigating digital menus on a television to sending emails on a smart phone.”

I honestly don’t know enough about the technical elements of this bill, but my feeling is that blocking text-to-speech will be a thing of the past within eighteen months.

I’ve been very wrong about this before.  🙂  I didn’t think the publishers were really going to fight text-to-speech on the Kindle, after the first few comments about it.  Why should they?  Amazon was considerably expanding their markets at its cost. 

Well, one argument is that text-to-speech was going to cut into audiobooks sales.  I didn’t ever buy that: they aren’t the same thing.  I think text-to-speech may actually increase the market for audiobooks, because it accustoms people to listening to books.

I can certainly see how there could be internal politics protecting audiobooks.

However, my guess was that, as the e-book market increased, protecting the audiobook market would be relatively less important (compared to expanding the e-book market).

The other factor is that Amazon’s 70% royalty plan for their independent-publishing program, the DTP (Digital Text Platform), requires allowing text-to-speech.  While I haven’t seen Draculas (an independently-published book written by authors with solid success in the traditional publishing world) break the top 50 paid at Amazon, I would say it is a success.

I’ve also noticed some publishers who have been blocking text-to-speech access allowing it on some new books.

So, if it looks like legal action might happen, if the e-book market has expanded enough, it might make sense to just end the policy before you run into some bad publicity.  Ironically, I could see Random House, which first blocked text-to-speech, leading the pack in dropping the policy.  If they did, I think the others would follow.

I’d really like to see text-to-speech access be universal on e-books.  That’s mostly because I think it disproportionately disadvantages the disabled, but I won’t deny that I benefit from it as well.  I listen to TTS for hours a week in the car.  I don’t intentionally buy books from companies that block text-to-speech…and one of my really favorite authors has a new book just released from one of those companies.  Hopefully, they stop blocking, and I start buying from them again.  🙂

This act will have whatever impact it will have late next year.  Hmm…the first year of the Agency Model will be over before that, and that might go away as well (there is legal investigation into that already).

We’d be back to open competition and convenient public market access for print disabled readers…two nice things in my opinion.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

2 Responses to “Will this law end the blocking of text-to-speech?”

  1. RA Says:

    I think it depends on whether a Kindle would be considered “equipment used for advanced communications services.” Is disseminating an ebook “communication” from Amazon to the reader? Is the book itself “communication” from the writer to the reader? You can use a Kindle to check e-mail, but the web browser is experimental – is that sufficient to make it a “communication” device?

    I agree with you that TTS is a great feature for the disabled and should be universally available. I think the publishers will put up a fight, though, if they remotely see it as cutting into their profits.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, RA!

      I think President Obama’s reference to digital television strengthens for me the idea that the Kindle would fall under the same category as that. However, although that might compel the Kindle to have audible menus (which it already does), I don’t know that it compels the providers of content to be accessible. I believe television broadcasters already have accessibility options for their programming.

      The e-books are sent interstate by Amazon’s servers…the server communicates with the Kindle and vice versa. It doesn’t say communication between human beings, but I don’t know enough about the technical definitions.

      Users also can send things to Kindles, using the Kindle’s e-mail address. That can certainly be used for communication purposes…and text documents can be read by the device for the print disabled. When we can lend books, that will be another communication that could be interstate.

      We’ll see how it all works out legally…

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