Saturday, February 14, 2009

Kindle 2, the Authors Guild, and the National Federation for the Blind

As I've already said, I support the ability of the blind and visually impaired to be able to use assistive technologies -- including screen-readers -- to access text. Hell, anyone who's read my Wake (recently serialized in Analog), which has a blind girl as the main character, can't have any doubts about that.

My grandfather was blind for most of his adult life, diabetes (a leading cause of blindness) is rampant in my family, and I myself spent six days blind in 1972 (hospitalized with both eyes covered because of a severe eye injury); I am totally, totally sympathetic to the needs of the blind. If you're blind, as I've said in this blog, I think it's perfectly fine for the Kindle (or any other device) to help you access text you've legitimately acquired.

But the market that Amazon is pursuing with the Kindle is not blind users. We need to clearly understand that Amazon did not put text-to-speech in the Kindle as an assistive technology; they put it in so people could have books read to them while driving in their cars, and so on: they put it in to go after the market segment that now buys audiobooks.

You want proof? If it were an assistive technology, then the user interface for the Kindle 2 would also support text-to-speech, and it doesn't. I quote Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, on this very point:
We note, however, that the device itself cannot be used independently by a blind reader because the controls to download a book and begin reading it aloud are visual and therefore inaccessible to the blind.
Now, some have said the text-to-speech quality is so bad that no one but the blind would routinely use it; it's a "GPS voice," as Stephen King called it. But it will not always be so; Amazon is savvy enough to grab the rights now when few will use this technology, rather than waiting until the technology is more mature and widely used.

Authors have ALREADY FOR DECADES NOW waived their rights to income from audio versions of their work made for the blind, whereas Amazon has said nothing about giving away ebooks -- let alone Kindles -- to blind users. We authors are the ones with the established track record of supporting the rights of the blind; let's not forget that: we've been the good guys for decades when it comes to making our content freely available to the blind.

This is not an authors vs. the blind issue, and to paint it as such is unfair and misleading. I fully grant that an accommodation for the needs of the blind and visually impaired has to be found as we move ahead with technology, but an accommodation for authors' rights has to be found, too.

And the bottom line hasn't changed: contracts have been breached, and unless and until we decide that contracts don't matter in our society, that fact should not be glossed over.

Indeed, I bet that if Amazon had approached authors' organizations first and asked if they could do this, they would have gotten permission from authors' groups to do it for free (or, perhaps, on condition that Amazon donate a portion of its profits on the Kindle hardware and the ebooks it sells to the National Federation of the Blind). But they didn't ask. They just took the rights -- and that's wrong.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site



At February 16, 2009 8:35 PM , Blogger Steven Fisher said...

Aha! I didn't realize the Kindle was useless to the blind. Thanks for the follow-up, I'm fully on the writers' side now.

At February 17, 2009 12:53 AM , Blogger Ross Eadie said...

To know blindness is to live in blindness. I have been totally blind for over half my life (25 years). My perspective on this issue is quite different. First of all text to speech is the access to the actual e-book text. Voice synthesis software is the acknowledged term for the access to menus and controls on computer equipment. Many items on menus and controls are graphical, but these tools can have text labels associated with the graphic, and menus already have text for the most part. Voice synthesis embeds its hooks into the underlying operating system to get access. A Kindle 2 has a speaker which can have the graphic and menu items spoken through it. It is a matter of installing the software on every Kindle 2 manufactured at the same cost to all purchasers of the product. The text to speech software looks at the electronic words and produces the sound from the e-text, unlike the voice synthesis software which hooks into the operating system to find out what control or menu is highlighted.

It is not only people who are blind. There are many thousands of others who cannot use the print or fonts on paper or on screen. We are no different than the busy school superintendent who listens to a book while on the road for school division purposes. We do not want special charity. it is possible to make a much higher percentage of books accessible with the electronic age. It takes knowing that a universal design will allow authors to sell many more copies of their titles. If a person can't read it in the way they use a book, they will not buy it. Yes, authors need to make a living which they do with contracts. but when I and others who buy books pay the price, we have bought the right to use the book for our personal use. Many people read poetry and other types of written material to another, both having eye sight. There is no violation of copyright in this case, and there is no violation of copyright when I or anyone else run a text to speech program to personally use the content in the book.

Audio books, like the ones that have been made out of Rob's books, are a different type of copyrightable work. Text to speech will never reach the level of a professional oral reader such as Scott Brick. but the text to speech can be reliable enough to hear the content as words without character, just like a person reading the font which has characteristics unrelated to the actual content or ideas of the book. There are some very human sounding text to speech drivers today which are probably not installed on the Kindle 2.

I was able to read electronic text back in the 1980's, but the publishers/copyright holders would not sell their copy of the electronic text. The excuse was we would steal the authors work, false to the degree any thing get stolen. It is totally unfair to lock out people who are blind from the protected e-text on a Kindle for example. To make special provisions as Rob has expressed is to once again tell us you will only get access to about 18% of all published content. In fact, I could not get any science fiction from the CNIB in the 1980's. This reality was totally not fair. It is still very difficult to get any science fiction titles out of the CNIB. I use

So to conclude, the plight of people who are blind is closely attached to the Author's guild's position that using text to speech creates a different or separate copyrightable work. it does not! Authors have a right to sell their work; users of books have the right to purchase an author's work; the copyright holder sells the right to users to read the content of the book in the way they use the book; the copyright holders have a responsibility to ensure their works are usable by the customer; the user has the responsibility of not using the work in a way that distributes copies to others for money or not for money; and Producers of book mediums have a responsibility to ensure any user can access the content while it protects the work from being stolen. Again, text to speech is not stealing, and voice synthesis is required for many people to access the Kindle medium. And hey while their at it, they should add voice command or voice input to the machine to make it even easier to use on the road or in the bath tub. the further away from the water the electronic medium is, the better tool a Kindle will be to its user. By the way, do copyright holders believe they should get royalties from the actual machine sales? Would it not be like saying give us a royalty cut on the actual printing rather than jus the work.

At February 17, 2009 9:55 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

H, Ross. Good to see you here (and in the comments section to this message; I'll consolidate my responses here.

Well, Ross, it comes full circle, doesn't it? :) I vividly remember when you and I first met, when I gave a keynote address to the Manitoba Public Libraries association on the future of the books and libraries on November 8, 2007 -- 15 months ago -- and I asked the entire room full of library workers if anyone had heard of the Kindle and no one put up a hand (the Kindle was released later that very month -- on November 19 -- and there'd already been a lot of pre-release coverage of it).

You said then that you didn't think ebooks would be widely accepted for many years to come. :) And you're saying now, don't worry, it's ten years at least before a computer will be able to do a decent reading. :)

Well, first, that's beside the point; the question is not when these rights will be worth having but whether Amazon has legally obtained these rights now.

Second, I certainly intend to be around in 10 years' time.

And third, beside the fact that if Moore's law holds, computers will be 4,000 times more powerful 10 years from now than they are today (making decent text-to-speech a trivial problem), has already acquired the largest database of human readings of the exact same text it already sells as text for the Kindle: Amazon bought

It's hardly inconceivable that they will "hint" their TTS readings (to use a term from font-rendering technology): they own the audio version of my Hominids. What's to stop Amazon from extracting the cadence and rhythm, the pausing, the inflection (up here, but down there), and the volume changes from the actual human reading they already own -- and coding that as part of the metadata they already add to the raw text of Hominids, so that the Kindle reads it in a much more credible and dramatic way than it does right now?

And, once they've done that, and the technology becomes really good, what's to stop them from saying that a computer reading and a human reading are de facto the same thing (sort of an audio Turing test), and then simply taking the rights to bundle the human readings with the text versions, too?

Yes, only significant titles are produced in a human-read audio format for the consumer marketplace, but, with the recent discrediting of Chris Anderson's "Long Tail" hypothesis, we need to recognize that the bulk of the use of the Kindle for most people -- sighted or otherwise -- is likely to be for titles that do or will have human-read audio versions, which can be mined for hints about how the machine should render the text audibly.

I'm not saying that Amazon is going to do any of these things, but now is the time to clarify the rights issue; you are wrong when you say that objecting initially upon an infringement is "jumping the gun." In a world of statutes of limitations, of an obligation on the part of a plaintiff to mitigate damages against him or her, and of unobjected usage establishing a legal easement, we have to speak up now. Why on Earth would you suggest that we should ignore this issue?

By all means, bring the National Federation of the Blind and the Canadian National Institute of the Blind to the table, but don't squeeze out the Authors Guild or The Writers Union of Canada, and don't expect us authors to believe that this is a non-issue just because it might be easier for you good blind folk if we did.

In point of fact, if the writers who do control the audio rights to their work said that they'd only allow TTS on the Kindle if it was clearly presented as an assistive technology -- which it isn't, since a blind person cannot operate the visual-only user-interface of the Kindle -- you'd be much better off, since Amazon would have to make the Kindle clearly usable by the blind.

An accommodation can be found for everyone's needs, including Amazon's, if all sides are consulted and all sides are respected, but we cannot, cannot, cannot lose sight of the fact that Amazon took unilateral action, violating existing licensing agreements. Why, why, why would anyone say that's just fine and dandy that they did so, unless it really is a case of all that rhetoric about "rights and responsibilities" actually meaning nothing other than "anything that advantages me is fine, and I don't care what impact it has on you"?

At February 22, 2009 11:21 AM , Blogger meme said...

This comment is about certain "moral" aspects of the issue. I am not a lawyer and have no idea of the legal consideration.

currently , today, there is no problem obtaining any ebook or audiobook for free though P2P. I don't do this since I believe that an author (and editor , and line editor , and ,what the hack , even marketeers) needs to be paid for his effort. The only reason I am currently paying for my fiction is that i think it is moral and "right". The legal situation is irrelevant because it is ineffective.

Mike Stackpole is known for saying that the publishers are in the business of selling dead wood. I resented this notion for a long time , but essentially he is correct. This does describe the current situation. However this is not the way things "should" be . The "right" thing (for same values of "right" used in the previous paragraph) is that a writer should sell his story. The format in which I consume it is not relevant.
When I buy a book i buy a story. not dead wood.
when I buy an ebook I buy a story , not electrons
when I buy an audiobook I buy a story and a performance. not electrons or CDs.
so here is my table of "right" and "wrong"
If I bought a book it is "wrong" to steal another book because this is a different pile of dead wood.

If I bought a book then it is "right" to download a ebook since I already paid for the story.

If I bought a book then it is "wrong" to download an audiobook since while I paid for the story I did not pay for the performance.

If i bought a book it is "right" for me to ask my significant other to read it to me since I already paid for the story.

..and if I bought a book/ebook it is "right" for me to use TTS to read the book since I already paid for the story.

will the author lose money if a really good TTS hits the market? not really. After all is said and done , after the agents stop talking , after the lawyers stop bickering ,after the publishers stop doing whatever publishers do , basic economics set in. supply meets demand . If demand transfers from audiobooks to ebooks then you will make more money from ebooks.

You currently receive a better deal from audible then Tor? again, economics set in , if the economics become better for Tor they would pay you more , or else you may move over to Baen or any other publisher.

will the actors reading the books lose? probably. welcome to the industrial revolution ....

In fact such a magic TTS could be the best thing to happen to writers since Gutenberg. Figuring in work,kids ,wife ,dog and other competing leisure activities I currently do not have time to read more then 3-4 books a year. my commute assures that I have the time to hear this number of books a month. And there is no competition from TV , internet , basketball etc. The only rival is the podcast.

Should Amazon have discussed this with the authors ? legally - I don't know . morally? I consider it fair use .

At February 22, 2009 12:02 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

It's not that I get a better deal from Audible than from Tor. Rather, Audible pays X thousands of dollars for ebook rights, pure and simple.

Tor has my text rights, and when they sublicense some of those rights to a secondary publisher (such as the Science Fiction Book Club), we split the money 50:50. (And Baen and all other major print publishers do exactly the same thing.)

But Tor doesn't have my audiobook rights, so I don't have to split the money on audiobook rights with anyone (well, except that my agent gets his commission for making the sale).

But Audible (and other audiobook makers) are indifferent to whether they're licensing from the author of from the print publisher; they pay the same amount either way. So, if it's a subright of print, middle-man Tor takes half my audio money; if it's a separate right, I get to keep that half.

This is actually an important point here in this sort of debate: so many people say, "See, it's all economics! See, you'll get a better deal if ... What? You want to actually plug numbers into the equation? Save your techie talk, math-boy! Don't cloud the issue with facts!" :D

Likewise, to say you don't know about the legal rights involved but you invoke fair use to justify what you do is also to miss actually grasping the issues. Fair use IS a legal doctrine, and CANNOT be rationally invoked outside of a discussion of legal rights.

Finally, you write, "In fact such a magic TTS could be the best thing to happen to writers since Gutenberg." Setting aside the hyperbole, you're actually making my point: There is a large market for audio books, therefore audio rights to books are valuable, there is an established audibook industry servicing that market, and Amazon does not have the right to simply take those rights without consultation, consent, or compensation.

At February 22, 2009 12:13 PM , Blogger meme said...

1) you are right, fair use is a technical legal term . I should have used a different term. I'll pick a different discipline to abuse: I believe Amazon's actions were kosher.
2) You have a 50:50 agreement with TOR ? If I were to write a book would be able to get the terms you did? Not a chance. The demand for my writing is no where near the demand you command (who am I kidding ? people would pay me to shut up ..). When the demand for your writing explodes after a very successful Flashforward TV series would you be able to get better terms from Tor? I very much hope so. If Tor knew that it could make money from audio would it make you a better offer (better advance/ royalties) ? You are making the mistake of thinking that if one thing change (the market for audio) other things would remain the same.

3) the point I made about the magic TTS is that this technology can be game changing because it would increase increase you total available market which we would have to define as the number of hours readers can devote to fiction.
The format in which it is consumed is not relevant. Saying that it is not okay to use TTS on an ebook , is to my mind the same as saying that it is not okay to change the font from times new roman to courier. Both are automatic transformations. (one of them is just more complicated to code).

I will go one step further. whenever automatic translations become good enough then automatically translating from English to Chinese would be Kosher.
Again , this would not hurt you as long as you get paid for your English text. you may get less money from foreign rights sales but Tor would have a larger market. you may even again make more money from this since there will be no need to pay a translator.

At February 22, 2009 1:07 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

On small subsidiary rights (ones that will generate three, four, or maybe five figures in income), author and publisher (ON THOSE RIGHTS THE AUTHOR HAS LET THE PUBLISHER HAVE) usually split the money 50:50; on big rights, such as film and TV, the split -- if the author lets the publisher have any interest in the rights at all -- tends to be 80% for the author, and 20% for the publisher. But everything is negotiable. :)

On translations, I don't pay the translator -- the foreign publisher does. But, in aggregate, my non-English-language rights income exceeds my English-language income.

You're suggesting that all the economies made through electronics will simply flow on down into the authors hands. I'm hear to tell you that that never happens. For a US print publisher to acquire my foreign rights as well as my audio rights, they'd have to more than double what they pay for my US print rights -- and they won't. Publishers want rights so THEY can make money, not so the author can. :)

(Want proof? Ask any unagented author to show you the first draft contract any publisher, big or small, has offered them. "Rapacious" would be a kind word for it.)

At February 22, 2009 3:54 PM , Blogger meme said...

it's always good to learn a new word. I will have to figure out a way to fit "Rapacious" into a conversation soon.
I think that your perspective on the subject is caught too much in the now. The economic situation that exists right now in the publishing industry (of which you are surely more aware of then me ) is the result of a balance of powers that fits the current market and technology. If technology , or the market changes the balance will have to change.Any publisher that will insist on doing things the old way would lose all of his authors.

If we take a step back and look at the market there are only two essential players : The author who wants to write stories and be paid handsomely for them and the reader who wants to read stories and is willing to pay.Anyone else is a necessary evil.currently we need the shop owners,typesetters , tree cutters , distribution van drivers , voice actors , translators and editors to mediate between the author and the reader. Other then possibly the editors every one else is doing a job that does not help the actual book reading experience and may be replaced by technology. However , every single one of them is getting paid.
if all those costs are taken out of the equation , some costs would be passed to the consumers , some costs would be kept by the publisher and some costs will end up in the authors pockets.How much everyone will get all depends on where the new balance point will be.

specifically regarding audio , I think that the authors guild should be promoting the hell out of "magic" TTS if it comes.
The next book I read would cost me 310$. And it would be a cheap paperback. why?
I get paid around 30$ a hour working for the man. it would probably take me ten hours to finish the book. Hours I could spend working but prefer to spend reading. I would also pay 10$ for the book itself. The author , if he has a good agent , will not get more the one dollar , or less 1/300 of the price the book is costing me.
my next audio book would cost me 12$ . All of them would go to audible. my driving time is free since I am already spending it.This is why I am a rapacious audiobook listener (see , I did it ;-)) I can afford much more audiobooks than dead tree books. If effective TTS was more widespread then there is no question in my mind that every author would make a whole of a lot more money.

At February 22, 2009 4:03 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

I've got a novel deadline in -- gak! -- 32 hours, so I can't spend any more time chatting today, meme, but I'd gently say my perspective is not anchored in the now, but rather is a historical one, based on knowing how the publishing field got to where it is today, understanding its politics and inertia, and having watched the transitions that have taken place in music, film, and television with at least a somewhat educated eye (my degree is in broadcasting, and I made much of my living in the 1980s writing for broadcasting and computer-industry publications).

But I have, in fact, talked a great deal about the issues you raise. Ten years ago, I was talking about what I called the "post-publisher economy," including here.

At February 22, 2009 4:30 PM , Blogger meme said...

It was a joy discussing this with you.
goodluck with the dead line

At February 25, 2009 11:10 AM , Blogger Kent Pollard said...

It seems to me that people rarely take the time to understand the underpinnings of society that are being reinforced every time they make a purchase. Meme make the incorrect claim that (across a variety of formats) you are not buying electrons or wood, but a story. The fact is you probably can't afford to buy one of Rob's stories. He needs to sell them for enough to make it worth while writing more rather than doing something else. What you are buying is a copy of the story and that copy has restrictions placed on it to ensure that Rob will continue to create more stories. Copyright is the collection of laws that grant Rob the right to place (almost) whatever restrictions he wishes on any copies that he provides (either directly or through an agent) to others.

Rob's argument has nothing to do with what you want to do, his argument is with Amazon. If Rob feels that enough of his customers want to use TTS to hear his books, then he can make arrangements to have them provided in a form that does so. The simple fact that someone wants them that way does not give them the right to have them.

Rob feels he has not given Amazon that right, Amazon thinks he has. Negotiations or the courts will decide who is right, within the context of society's goals in having a copyright system. (As with anything, society's needs must be placed above individual wants ([not needs, wants, people who resent spending time reading instead of listening don't _need_ TTS, Amazon doesn't _need_ to provide TTS, and Rob doesn't, technically, _need_ to make money at writing])

Straying a bit off the topic, I have to say I think you are representing a rather simplistic viewpoint when you wrote "...every one else is doing a job that does not help the actual book reading experience and may be replaced by technology."

As a bookseller, I take a great deal of pride in my knowledge of books, particularly of genre books. When Rob first came to my attention, with "Calculating God" I convinced a number of people who had never read SF before to try it (in hardcover!). Based on my excitement and my track record in responding to our customers' needs, they did so and not one of them expressed any disappointment. I can pretty much guarantee to you that Amazon's "you might also like" would rarely suggest an SF title to an non-SF buyer.

Everyone can't know everything about even their favourite subjects, and computers won't be able to replace everyone until they gain creativity and can freely develop opinions, at which point we will no longer have to feed those pesky writers.

At February 25, 2009 11:16 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Well said, Kent! :D

At February 26, 2009 5:10 PM , Blogger Jennifer Roland said...

This has been such an interesting discussion, and yours (Robert) is the first author's opinion I have found that is on the side of the Author's Guild. I'm not sure you have completely changed my mind on the issue, but you have certainly made me re-think my initial position.

At February 26, 2009 5:50 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Many, many thanks, Jennifer!


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