Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

The Authors Guild responds to the National Federation of the Blind

by Rob - April 7th, 2009.
Filed under: ebooks.

From The Authors Guild, of which I am a member:

Today, the National Federation of the Blind led a protest in front of the Guild’s offices in Manhattan. This protest stems from Amazon’s announcement in February that it would allow publishers to disable the voice-output feature of its Kindle 2 after we had objected that the feature threatened audio markets, violated authors’ copyrights and exceeded the e-rights licenses that authors granted publishers.

The Guild, of course, is strongly supportive of making books accessible to the blind and other print-disabled readers through the Kindle and other devices. For decades (we think going back at least to the 1930s), authors have donated their rights so that Braille and audio versions can be made freely available to those who need them. The key is to make this technology accessible to print-disabled readers without undermining authors’ audio markets.

There’s an easy technological fix here: those with certified disabilities could have a Kindle operating system that is subtly modified to permit voice output for all books, overriding any limitations put in place by publishers. This could work in conjunction with existing programs such as Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, Bookshare and the National Library Service.

We issued the following statement today in response to the protest:

Authors want everyone to read their books. That’s why the Authors Guild, and authors generally, are strong advocates for making all books, including e-books, accessible to everyone. This is not a new position for us. For decades, we’ve informed new authors that the expected and proper thing to do is to donate rights so that their works can be accessible to the blind and others. In October, we were praised by the National Federation of the Blind for the settlement of our lawsuit against Google, which promises “to revolutionize blind people’s access to books,” according to the Federation’s press release.

E-books do not come bundled with audio rights. So we proposed to the Federation several weeks ago the only lawful and speedy path to make e-books accessible to the print disabled on Amazon’s Kindle:

1. The first step is to take advantage of a special exception to the Copyright Act known as the Chafee Amendment, which permits the blind and others with certified physical print disabilities access to special versions, including audio versions, of copyrighted books. Technology makes this step easy: certified users of existing Kindles could activate their devices online to enable access to voice-output versions of all e-books. This process could be ready to go within weeks.

2. Since step one would help only those with sufficient eyesight to navigate the current Kindle, we encourage Amazon or another e-book device manufacturer to make an e-book device with voice output capability that would be truly blind-accessible, with a Braille keyboard and audible menu commands.

3. Finally, we need to amend existing book contracts to allow voice-output access to others, including those with learning disabilities, that don’t qualify for special treatment under the Chafee Amendment. There’s no getting around the need to amend contracts: for the past 16 years, standard publishing contracts with most major trade publishers do not permit publishers to sell e-books bundled with audio rights. Fortunately, publishing contracts are amendable, and can (once terms have been negotiated) be handled in a systematic fashion.

The Authors Guild will gladly be a forceful advocate for amending contracts to provide access to voice-output technology to everyone. We will not, however, surrender our members’ economic rights to Amazon or anyone else. The leap to digital has been brutal for print media generally, and the economics of the transition from print to e-books do not look as promising as many assume. Authors can’t afford to start this transition to digital by abandoning rights.

Knowing how difficult the road ahead is for the already fragile economics of authorship, we are particularly troubled at how all this arose, with Amazon attempting to use authors’ audio rights to lengthen its lead in the fledgling e-book industry. We could not allow this rights grab to happen. Audio books are a billion dollar market, the rights for which are packaged separately from — and are far more valuable than — e-book rights.

That said, our support for access by all disabled readers is steadfast, and we know how to make it happen. The Federation rightly heralded the settlement in Authors Guild v. Google. That class-action settlement represents a quantum leap in accessibility to books for the disabled. It will, if approved, make far more books than ever before, potentially tens of millions of out-of-print books, accessible to not only the blind, but to people with any type of print disability.

Through the Google settlement, we have a solution for out-of-print book accessibility. We’re confident we can arrive at a solution for in-print books as well.

Today’s protest is unfortunate and unnecessary. We stand by our offer, first made to the Federation’s lawyer a month ago and repeated several times since, to negotiate in good faith to reach a solution for making in-print e-books accessible to everyone. We extend that same offer to any group representing the disabled.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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