Kindle owners start to lose text-to-speech on purchased books -- how do DRM-free Kindle books work?

Back in February, the Authors Guild, a lobby group representing less than 10,000 writers, argued that the Kindle's ability to read text aloud infringed on copyright (it doesn't -- and even if it does, the infringement lies not in including the feature, but rather in using it; this is the same principle that makes the VCR legal). Amazon folded and agreed to revoke the feature.

Now comes some news about how they're doing this, from the Knowledge Ecology International site:

Beginning yesterday, Random House Publishers began to disable text-to-speech remotely. The TTS function has apparently been remotely disabled in over 40 works so far. Affected titles include works by Toni Morrison, Stephen King, and others. Other notable titles include Andrew Meachem's American Lion, and five of the top ten Random House best-sellers in the Kindle store.
I've been trying to get a statement from Amazon about this since February: how does disabling text-to-speech work? It appears that there's a text-to-speech "flag" in the Kindle file-format that the Kindle looks for and responds to, disabling the feature if it's set to 0 (a perl script called mobi2mobi can reset the bit to 1).

But what no one at Amazon will tell me is what other flags are lurking in the Kindle format: is there a "real only once" flag? A "no turning the pages backwards" flag?

I'm specifically interested because Amazon has announced a "DRM-free" version of the Kindle format and I'd love to sell my books on the platform if it's really DRM-free. To that end, I've put three questions to Amazon:

1. Is there anything in the Kindle EULA that prohibits moving your purchased DRM-free Kindle files to a competing device?

2. Is there anything in the Kindle file-format (such as a patent or trade-secret) that would make it illegal to produce a Kindle format-reader or converter for a competing device?

3. What flags are in the DRM-free Kindle format, and can a DRM-free Kindle file have its features revoked after you purchase it?

I've sent these questions repeatedly to my contact at Amazon for months with no response. I've tweeted about it. I've sent in requests on behalf of the Guardian newspaper to their press office without even getting an acknowledgement. And I've asked a major publisher that is working with Amazon to release DRM-free versions of its books to put the question to their Amazon rep, and they haven't gotten a response.

I love Amazon's physical-goods business. I buy everything from them, from my coffee-maker to my DVDs. I love their consumer-friendly policies, and their innovative business practices. I just wish their electronic delivery business was as good as their physical goods side. I have a lot of hope for a DRM-free Kindle format, but it's downright creepy when no one at Amazon will even respond to three simple, basic questions about it.

Kindle 2 vs Reading Disabled Students


  1. Its sad that this wonderful but not perfect feature is being removed from the kindle. for those who have problems seeing or other related problems this was a blessing ! but people with disabilities will have to take the back seat again.
    One of my girl friends was using this feature to help her older child read after a horrible head injury (it was not made for this ,but she said it was really helping her put words with text)

  2. -sigh- I remember when Stephen King used to go around saying “You can put a V-chip in my remote when you pry it from my cold dead hands!”

  3. I am always worried when any vendor, seller, or manufacture sells something that will only work on their product I think this is where the fight really needs to be I believe there is an agreed upon standard proposed for e-books and it should be the choice of the author on whether it has DRM on it or not something like a book reader or music player needs to play/display any type of file that you want be it a Text file a PDF MP3 or other popular music or text format it should also not lock you in to a way to acquire your media files you should be able to shop any where you want use any file management systems you want look at some of the most successful Tech throughout history and you will see that once standards are set up the consumer benefits TV is a good example you can put a signal in to that thing so many different ways the choice is yours
    This is what I would like to see from Amazon
    Stop dictating the price for e-books why should I sell my book cheap so you can sell your over priced reader you should lower the price of the reader to help the adoption of this new tech
    Sell e-books that work on any reader not just the kindle you sell MP3 that work on any media player why not books
    DRM should be the choice of the publisher or the author not the retailer

  4. You do know that the kindle format is the same as mobipocket, right? Your books are already available on the kindle in a DRM free format. Of course, mobipocket can be DRM’ed but it doesn’t have to be.

  5. Cory, you should offer to license your works to Amazon with undisclosed conditions. When they balk, you have your opportunity to ask them to disclose their conditions.

  6. Text-to-speech is a great function to have on a ebook, but personally one of the reasons I have started to purchase more audiobooks is the reading by the narrator (and sometimes atmosphere as injected by background music and subtle sound effects).

  7. I wouldn’t hold your breath on a response from amazon. This industry (like so many others) seems culturally completely unable to wrap it’s collective heads around the idea of a copyright holder who’s not a complete control freak.

  8. Authors’ Guild to people with poor eyesight and reading disabilities: Screw You!

    Anecdote Time!
    I have a friend in the military, stationed in Iraq. His wife was going to get him a kindle because the T2S feature would be nice, since he’s dyslexic and loves books. Reading along with the speech helps him read faster. But thanks to the Author’s Guild, no Kindle for him.

    The Author’s Guild hates our troops! =P

    Also, remote disabling of licenses in DRMed software is very “Rainbows End”. The fact that this is possible should make anyone wary of buying a Kindle. What happens when they stop supporting it? Like they get bought out or just decide to go in a “different direction”? Congratulations, you’ve just bought a brick, and all of those books you thought you were buying were just rentals.

  9. Curse you, Roy Blount Jr! Your folksy humor and easygoing demeanor have blinded society to the terrible truth of the Author’s Guild!

  10. Please keep us posted on the developments here. I love the ebook reader concept, and would love to have one. There’s so many older books, references, and ancient text translations available via,, and other places that I would love to read in a chair, by a window. You can’t get that experience from a laptop.

    The Kindle’s other features are great, too. But what I don’t understand is why Amazon feels it’s necessary to lock its customers into a proprietary format, with a device that’s awesome but flawed, and not open the format up to other manufacturers. They already have the great e-commerce interface, and can win the market on service and features – plus, they’re first-movers in the network-enabled ebook reader. Competition only OPENS the market to their offering, not closes it off.

    I want a Kindle. But I’m scared to spend $350 or more of my money, especially as my work situation is getting more uncertain, only to have a device that may, at some point in the future, stop working for me because a lawsuit about something I don’t give a crap about has side effects.

  11. I am not getting a Kindle until it’s 100% DRM free and the authors guild writes an apology to all the people who need and use the text to speech.

    I hope none of those members of the author’s guild needs to use the kindle text to speech engine. In dark human terms, since there’s a lack of understanding of other people’s need and a lack of empathy, it’d be the only way for them to get it.

  12. Cory’s questions to Amazon really do need to get answered for people who are concerned with this ad-hoc lockdown. Especially concerned authors (you know, the ones the Author’s Guild purports to “speak for”)

    There are work-arounds to prevent the disable technology. Kind of involved:

    Get igorsk’s infamous de-drm script, de-drm your legally purchased kindle ebook (for private, fair use format-shifting). Requires python and knowing your Kindle’s PID.

    Use calibre (or the commandline conversion scripts) to convert said ebook to any of the other formats that the Kindle supports, and back it up at the same time. Because we know digital service websites never go out of business or change their terms of service.

    Load the new HTML, DOC, MOBI, PRC or TXT file into the Kindle. Listen to the book with the text to speech. Time spent: afternoon or evening setting everything up and confirming that your scripts and processes work without horribly mangling things.

    My suggestion would be to have Kindle owners call into the support line to get the answer. Enough calls and they might come up with a coherent response.

  13. This is further proof of my stance that an ebook reader should only be an ebook reader.

    I don’t need wireless, I don’t need a keyboard, I don’t need a bloody MP3 player in it.

    I want an ebook reader that’ll take CF and connect to a PC with USB, not one that phones home or takes calls on its own.

    Kindle == Kindling.

  14. The Mobipocket format is, if not an open spec, an openly deconstructed spec. You can get your books now on Kindle without DRM, just go to

  15. Being an old f@rt, I love my books… something I can hold, smell, touch, turn, write on, wrinkle, abuse, and just fall in love with. I have downloaded quite a few of digital files using Stanza on my iPhone (many from some guy named Doctor-something-or-other!), but realized early that if I want to share these “books”, I can’t… who in their right mind would lend out their iPhone (or Kindle… or whatever comes next)??
    There are reasons to have digital files… I love reading the NYT and WSJ… I don’t need to keep those or share them. They are articles, not books. Books are to cherish, to reread, to enjoy time and time again. Add then there are all the wonderful DRM and file specific issues… I just don’t see e-books working out in the long run. Anyone in the business of selling books is going to make sure they make a profit… and there ain’t no profit unless you have a captive audience.

  16. So what’s the benefit of a kindle over a book? You can’t write in it; you can’t throw it in a bag; the batteries can die; you can’t resell it; you lose control over the “book” you’re reading; it costs a hell of a lot more; etc.

    This seems like a whiz-bang “cool” toy with no real benefit over the original.

  17. You know, this should be something that any Amazon flack should be able to easily answer. DRM free by definition means none of the restrictions you have asked about should be an issue. The fact that they have not answered you is extremely troubling. What do they think DRM free means? I’m glad you are asking them… holding their feet to the fire.

  18. Why shop from these people “I buy everything from them, from my coffee-maker to my DVDs.”?
    Support real, local businesses instead or else you end up with mega-corporations that don’t care to even answer questions.

  19. I was considering getting an e-book reader, but the Kindle is now no longer even a consideration for me — not even the larger version. Maybe one of the Sony readers. Sad to think that Sony is the less evil company here, although granted Sony never made TTS a feature of their readers.

    The Writers Guild is still wrong about Text-to-Speech. And Amazon just proved that they’re not out to champion anyone’s rights — they’ll roll over for anybody.

    As for your question about the Kindle file format containing anything, patent or trade secret, that would prevent generating your own files… The patent issue may or may not exist (though I suspect not), but the trade secret “issue” is a non-issue if the file format is reverse-engineered in a “clean room” fashion. I know this may not apply everywhere, but in the United States at least, reverse engineering for the purpose of compatibility or interoperability is completely legal.

  20. Regarding their physical-good business… I hate the way they advertise goods they don’t actually have, and can’t get for a year or more. Wouldn’t be so bad if they were clearly marked as such.

  21. I want a Kindle. But I’m scared to spend $350 or more of my money….

    That’s exactly why, even though it was almost double the price, I went for a pretty much open-source solution for my e-reader, the iLiad. I figured my investment, though far greater, would be more secure.

    If the company didn’t exist in a few years, there’d be enough hobbyists out there that’d be patching and augmenting the code – just as long as the hardware was still working. That, and the screen was waaaay too small on the Kindle.

    Oh, and I can annotate the documents, with a stylus, on MY e-reader.

    I’m just about at the 9 months of ownership and I expect to break even on all the money I’ve saved by not buying dead-tree publications (both magazines and books) by the time I hit the one-year mark.

    Not to mention: I’ve finally managed to catch up on all the research papers (all PDFs, all handled natively) I kept downloading and not reading on my computer screen.

  22. it’s downright creepy when no one at Amazon will even respond to three simple, basic questions about it

    It’s just another corporation, and it doesn’t appreciate your “love” in the slightest, and it’s not your friend.

  23. I’m going to be part of a Kindle focus group here in LA on the 27th – they want feedback, I’ll give them feedback…

  24. BTW – I just checked the text-to-speech feature on my Kindle – it’s working on at least the books I checked. It’s my understanding that they gave publishers the ability to block text-to-speech on specific books, but not cutting it out. Here’s Amazon’s answer from their FAQ re:Text to Speech:

    “The experimental category represents features we are still working on to enhance the Kindle experience even further. Try them out and let us know what you think. We have no plans to remove the experimental featuresin fact, we are working hard to make them even better for you.”

  25. I’ve read 100s of e-books for about 9 years now, using my pocket PC and the MS Reader program which uses the .lit format. I think the .lit format is based very closely on HTML (or RTF), and the file format must be pretty easily hackable–At any rate, there’s plenty of free utilities to convert things to and from .lit. I’ve got dozens and dozens of Project Gutenberg books I’ve converted this way, and it works fine. As I understand it, there’s some kind of optional DRM built into the file format, but as a user I’ve never once encountered it. On a side note, I think MS Reader has a built in speech to text system, although I’ve never played with it.

    I’d never switch to a reader that didn’t have at least this level of openness and usability. Will Kindle let me import my whole library of .lit files and annotation files? Will it let me export to other formats? If not, why the hell not? Seems like a no-brainer if you’re trying to design and sell a piece of hardware to a market of users.

    The problem is that the Kindle is a piece of hardware, but it is designed and sold by people whose only motivation is selling you their content. Of course it’s going to be designed with their interests in mind, not the users’.

  26. My only interest in Kindle had been as a possible aid to my mother, who has had vision problems for a few years. She’s not blind in any sense, and is not eligible for any of the services for the blind that Roy Blount, Jr., seems to think make the TtS feature unimportant for the disabled. Nevertheless, reading gets hard for her and she gets sick of the limited selection of large print and audio books. I guess it’s out now. Judging from what seen in Kindle reviews, help with minor disabilities of aging was a big part of Kindle’s popularity. They’re shooting themselves in their collective foot.

  27. HERSHMIRE @20: “So what’s the benefit of a kindle over a book?”

    The major one is that you can easily carry many books around with you. If you’re on the bus/train/subway a lot, it’s much easier to have one Kindle with many books than to bring separate books every day (sort of like having an iPod with your entire music collection, instead of bringing a CD player and a separate CD every day). This can be incredibly handy if you’re going on a trip someplace. Suitcases have limits, and this can free up a lot of space.

    Beyond that, you can buy books wirelessly, and download them right away, so if you want to get a book you don’t have to wait until you can get to a bookstore to start reading it.

    There are other benefits too, but those are two major ones.

  28. What about the issue of sticking readers with just one voice? Amazon should consider – an online TTS service with over 50 cool voices. Imagine each character gets a unique voice; or, assigning different voices to different blogs or news categories.

    The guild is missing the use case. Do you use TTS 100% of the time? Or, do you flip-flop to TTS for chunks of content when the situation demands audio (e.g., driving). This is what “multi-modal” interfaces and best for.

  29. I’m thinking of the many instances in history where authorities did not want people to have access to certain published books, or the work simply fell out of fashion. But the books were independent physical entities so Estonians preserved their language through the Soviet occupation, Christians smuggled Bibles into Soviet Russia, Galileo’s work survived Catholic condemnation and many fragments of Sappho’s poetry remain.

    I’m uneasy about centralized control of post-purchased publications reversing the emancipation the printing press gave us.

  30. Hi everyone

    I bought my kindle used from a colleague for about 150.00. I am a train commuter (1 hr) train ride and adore my kindle for reading and easily downloading books (not to mention the ‘sample’ feature).

    My gripe with DRM has come to light with Sony’s support for library ebooks ( Using ‘igorsk’s infamous de-drm script’ should not be an option, as your average ‘Joe’ / ‘Susan’ is not going to want to hack their Kindle.

    To me this is a show stopper for Kindle and would force me to buy a Sony reader.

    I like the idea of Flooding Amazon support line with complains about DRM. Has anyone given serious thoughts how to coordinate such a protest?

  31. I’m happy to announce that more than 160 O’Reilly books are now available on Kindle (both Kindle 1 and Kindle 2), and are being sold without any DRM (Digital Rights Management). Though we do offer more than 400 ebooks direct from our website, the number for sale on Kindle will be limited until Amazon updates Kindle 1 to support table rendering (“maybe this summer” is the most specific they would get). The text-to-speech feature of Kindle 2 does work with these books.

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