A row has erupted over whether or not publishers should be allowed to disable the text-to-speech function on electronic book readers, after one US reader manufacturer bowed to requests from an authors’ rights group and made the speech function optional.
Manufacturer Amazon made the move with respect to its new Kindle 2 e-book reader following representation from the Authors Guild, which had claimed that the automatic allowance of text-to-speech (TTS) conversion effectively created an audiobook device, even though no audio royalties were being paid.
Kindle 2 is marketed in the US (there are no immediate plans for a European release) as a ‘wireless reading device’, allowing users to read downloaded books, magazines, newspapers and blogs. Until now, all text downloaded to the device could also be read using the TTS function, but Amazon have now allowed the feature to be disabled if a publisher or author so wishes. Though the function is not marketed as an accessibility feature, and the Kindle 2 requires sight to navigate it effectively, blindness groups are pressing for the inclusion of TTS functionality by default.
Richard Orme, Head of Accessibility at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, told E-Access Bulletin this month: “We want manufacturers to make sure that text-to-speech is available for all people who have a legitimate print disability. It is essential for people using speech readers that they can access content which hasn’t been blocked. Synthetic speech is not the equivalent to speech by a human. We refute that strongly.”
However a spokesperson for Amazon said: “We believe that most authors will decide that leaving text-to-speech enabled on their titles is in their commercial interests, and will choose accordingly. So Kindle 2 will still provide an innovative option for handicapped customers.”
In a statement, The Authors Guild says their objection to the audio function is solely a royalties issue, and that they support accessible technology. “[Some people] 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.”