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Row Brewing Over E-Book Speech Function Removal

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.”


  1. Dave Garside | March 27th, 2009 | 5:19 pm

    When a paper book is purchased a royalty is paid and it is not an issue wether the book is read by sight, a second person out loud or by mechanical means.
    With an e-book the royalty has also been paid.
    Are the objections because, those who prefer an audio copy are being ripped off by paying a higher royalty fee?
    Or is it not a royalty but a profit issue.

    Either way it forces the blind to pay extra for a service that could be supplied at the same price as to a sighted customer and that is a discrimination issue.

  2. Claude Almansi | April 5th, 2009 | 9:44 pm

    The Reading Rights Coalition has started an online petition aimed at the US Authors’ Guild, “Allow Everyone Access to E-books”:

    “When Amazon released the Kindle 2 electronic book reader on February 9, 2009, the company announced that the device would read e-books aloud using text-to-speech technology. Under pressure from the Authors Guild, Amazon has announced that it will give authors and publishers the ability to disable the text-to-speech function on any or all of their e-books available for the Kindle 2.

    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 organizations that represent 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 245,000 books.”

    It can be signed at:

  3. Richard Morton - Accessible Web Design | April 27th, 2009 | 7:56 pm

    Although I can see the arguments from both sides, it seems foolish for publishers to object the text to speech facilities. They may well have a legitimate case but the negative publicity generated will be bad for everyone.
    As has been pointed out, synthesised speech is not of the same quality as say Stephen Fry’s voice and is unlikely to be so in the near future.
    My money is on the publishers giving in eventually and probably trying to claim the moral highground.

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