Author Rights vs. Disability Rights

There are two definitions of “rights” in this discussion. The first is copyright, the control of intellectual property. That’s the author rights. The other is the right to equal access to information. That’s the disability rights part of the issue.

Let’s take a look at the authors rights part of this controversy first. In February, the Authors Guild published E-Book Rights Alert: Amazon’s Kindle 2 Adds “Text to Speech” Function, which warned authors about the upcoming feature in Kindle 2 that would provide text-to-speech functionality.

Here’s the crux of the warning to Authors Guild members, and what the Authors Guild wanted Amazon to do:

We’re studying this matter closely and will report back to you. In the meantime, we recommend that if you haven’t yet granted your e-book rights to backlist or other titles, this isn’t the time to start. If you have a new book contract and are negotiating your e-book rights, make sure Amazon’s use of those rights is part of the dialog. Publishers certainly could contractually prohibit Amazon from adding audio functionality to its e-books without authorization, and Amazon could comply by adding a software tag that would prohibit its machine from creating an audio version of a book unless Amazon has acquired the appropriate rights. Until this issue is worked out, Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books.

The Authors Guild was concerned that the Kindle 2 ebooks would take the place of Audiobooks. Currently ebooks and Audiobooks are two separate negotiable items for an author to consider in a contract process. The Authors Guild wanted Amazon to disable the text-to-speech functionality until the question was cleared up, and dismissed the disability issues with,

Others suggest that challenging Amazon’s use of this software challenges accessibility to the visually impaired. It doesn’t: Kindle 2 isn’t designed for such use. The Guild continues to support efforts to make works truly accessible to the visually impaired.

Amazon backed off and made it an author’s decision as to whether or not a particular book would have the “read aloud” function enabled. Amazon was quoted in the LA Times saying,

Kindle 2’s experimental text-to-speech feature is legal: no copy is made, no derivative work is created and no performance is being given,” the company said. “Nevertheless, we strongly believe many rights holders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver’s seat.

This did not make the people who regarded the Kindle 2’s read aloud feature as an assistive feature for the disabled happy.

The National Federation for the Blind (NFB) asked The Authors Guild to reconsider their position. Accodrding to the NFB,

When the NFB requested the Guild reconsider, the Guild told them that to read books with text-to-speech, print-disabled persons must either submit to a burdensome special registration system and prove their disabilities or pay extra for the text-to-speech version.

The Reading Rights Coalition, joined by the NFB and several other organizations decided to stage a protest on April 7 outside the headquarters of The Authors Guild. On the Reading Rights website, the call went out for Equal and not separate Reading Rights. They announced the protest and called for petitions, saying,

The Guild has told us that to read their books with text-to-speech we must either submit to a special registration system (that not all may qualify for and that would expose disability information to all future eBook reader manufacturers) and prove our disabilities — or pay extra. The Guild’s position is contrary to the principle of equal opportunity for all and discriminates against millions of people with print disabilities.

This report from CNN covers many of the issues and shows the protest in progress.

My view on the issue

As an author, I can understand the desire to maintain the rights to your work and the way it is distributed. As an accessibility advocate, I can understand the need for equal access to information. It’s only partially helpful to consider this a battle between economic rights and civil rights. I think it’s part of the larger muddle over media-in-transition that is felling newspapers and leading to arguments over digital music rights, fair use, and the quoting of news articles.

Technology is changing everything. As a society, we haven’t found a way to balance things and make them equitable. We’re all shouting, “It’s not fair!” no matter what our perspective on the issues. The laws haven’t kept pace with changes. The system of obligations and rewards haven’t kept up with changes. The technological possibilities are spinning ahead faster than we can wrap our minds around the beneficial uses.

Shouting, “It’s not fair!” is fine to bring attention to a problem. But very soon after we realize that things are amiss, we need to look for creative win-win solutions that find the needed compromises to restore equity and balance to society as a whole.

Related Links

Cross posted at BlogHer.

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