Blind Foundation joins Kindle read-aloud debate

Rights arguments could leave the blind behind

An attempt by the Authors Guild in the US to characterise the read-aloud feature on Amazon’s Kindle 2 e-book reader as “copying”, could starve the print-disabled of access to digital books even more than they are already, says Neil Jarvis, executive director of access innovation and enterprise at the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind.

Jarvis has lent his voice to an international chorus of protest from blind, partially sighted and other print-disabled book users over the Guild’s demand for a fee for the rendering of an e-book into the spoken word.

The question is rather academic for New Zealand, because the Kindle 2 is unlikely to be available here in the near future, Jarvis says, but it serves to highlight a broader issue for overseas, print-disabled readers.

Already, US copyright law severely restricts the availability of digital reproductions of books overseas, he says. So even if the dispute between the Authors Guild and Amazon was resolved and the Kindle 2 made available, most books produced for it could still not be legally obtained in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s Copyright Act, at Section 69, specifically approves organisations such as the Foundation to convert books into Braille or other formats designed to cope with the “special needs” of readers who cannot use the ordinary format.

The organisation concerned has to be non-profit-making and Amazon would not qualify. “But it’s not Amazon that’s converting the book anyway; it’s a piece of technology,” Jarvis says.

The kind of “copying” involved in text-to-speech conversion may be covered under s175A, which deals with “transient reproduction of a recording” such as the act of playing a CD or DVD. Jarvis agrees, but says the clearest analogy to his mind is with reading a book aloud to a child; the Authors Guild would presumably not consider that copying, he says.

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