The right to have books read out loud

Lawrence Lessig, one of the most influential writers on technology and society and a law school professor, commented on Amazon.com partially surrendering to the demands from the Authors Guild to disable text-to-speech features on Kindle 2, its portable ebook reader. He has already condemned the limits that cpoyright holders place onto electronic reader software such as Adobe Reader to disable the machine-reading function, in one of his books Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (2004). “So here we go again,” laments Lessig, “[h]ow long till we can buy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and be told that this book ‘cannot be read aloud’?”

As for me, even though I respect the rights of publishers and authors to secure their interests on books, I think that the suppression of automatic audial reading features went too far. Although audiobooks, recorded by trained professionals, enables one to bypass the difficulty of reading through hundreds of pages of text, especially for people who have physical challenges on their eyesight. Yet, the production of audiobooks are largely confined to a number of bestsellers which should guarantee a hefty sum of revenues even in their audiobook editions. As for the books which may be less lucrative to be recorded in voice, the visually challenged are out of luck, unless they are wealthy enough to actually hire someone to read them out loud. Automatic text-to-speech function, be it on PCs or dedicated hardware like Kindle, could save a lot of trouble for those people who are, like people without the physical challenges, eligible to be granted access to the wealth of information and knowledge, most of which are only preserved on print. Limiting the use of this function at all only contributes to alienating a group of people already marginalized from most of the world’s information to an even more dire situation.

Update: on April 7, 2009, Authors Guild released a press statement to explain its position regarding the accessibility of ebooks to the visually challenged people.

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