The Reading Rights Coalition and the National Federation for the Blind are staging a protest in New York today (Tuesday) at the offices of the Authors Guild, to let the Guild know that their successful campaign to remove the text-to-speech feature from the Kindle has hurt blind people and undermined their ability to access a wide variety of works in a more-accessible form.
The Authors Guild argued that the text-to-speech feature in the Kindle violated their copyrights, saying that the private use of a file-conversion feature infringed the "performance right" in copyright, and that it was illegal for Amazon to make devices that could be used to infringe copyright, even if they could also be used in non-infringing ways. Neither of these premises stand up to legal scrutiny, but Amazon withdrew the feature anyway — now, text-to-speech works only on books that have it switched on.
The Authors Guild has gone on record saying that this has nothing to do with blind people (who have a statutory right to transform books to "assistive formats") because the Kindle's touchscreen wouldn't work for totally blind people.
This is nonsense, and I assume the AG knows it.
First, because "legally blind" is not the same as "totally blind." Indeed, the Kindle's ability to dynamically resize text makes it a natural for readers with limited vision, and it's entirely likely that a disproportionate number of Kindle owners are legally blind.
Second, and most importantly: even if the Kindle had a big, Braille, "I AM BLIND READ EVERYTHING ALOUD TO ME" button (thus rendering all its text accessible to even legally blind people), the Authors Guild's legal theories would still prohibit its production.
Under the theory that any devices that can convert text to audio is illegal if it's possible that some of those texts aren't "licensed for text-to-speech conversion," then no device that can convert arbitrary ebooks to audio will ever be legal.
Sorry, blind people, guess you're out of luck.
The Reading Rights Coalition, which represents people who cannot read print, will protest the threatened removal of the text-to-speech function from e-books for the Amazon Kindle 2 outside the Authors Guild headquarters in New York City at 31 East 32nd Street on April 7, 2009, from noon to 2:00 p.m. The coalition includes the blind, people with dyslexia, people with learning or processing issues, seniors losing vision, people with spinal cord injuries, people recovering from strokes, and many others for whom the addition of text-to-speech on the Kindle 2 promised for the first time easy, mainstream access to over 255,000 books.