Amazon.com, the Kindle 2, and the Visually Impaired: Not a love story.

In previous episodes: I offered some tepid, conditional support for the Authors Guild’s position that if the Kindle 2’s “read aloud” function was shown to shrink the revenue streams for audio books, a court might conclude there was reproduction rights based copyright infringement. A number of very smart people disagreed with me in the appended comments.

I also noted that Amazon decided to let rights holders decide whether to make books read-aloudable on a case by case basis. Whether Amazon.com will begin to charge consumers extra for read aloud privileges remains to be seen. Certainly Amazon.com has demonstrated that it loves using DRM to tightly control consumer behavior. A few days ago Declan McCullagh reported:

This week, an e-book Web site said Amazon.com invoked the [DMCA] to prevent books from some non-Amazon sources from working on its Kindle reader.

Amazon sent a legal notice to MobileRead.com complaining that information relating to a computer utility written in the Python programming language “constitutes a violation” of the DMCA, according to a copy of the warning letter that the site posted. MobileRead.com is an e-book news and community site. …

… Kindlepid.py and a related piece of accompanying Python code don’t allow piracy. Rather, they accomplish something akin to the opposite: they allow legally purchased books from other e-book stores to be used on the Kindle. (Amazon owns MobiPocket, one of those stores. Another would be OverDrive.com, which counts schools and libraries as customers.)

In theory, at least, this could threaten Amazon’s business model, which provides wireless connectivity through Sprint’s EV-DO cellular data network and covers the cost through items purchased from the Amazon Kindle Store. Kindle customers can also e-mail themselves documents to be converted at 10 cents per conversion.

A copy of a MobileRead.com wiki page–now empty–saved in Google’s cache says Kindlepid.py allows you to “obtain books from sites that use DRM (Digital Rights Management – encryption) on their books for specific devices. This includes book sellers and public libraries.” It provides instructions on how to install and use the software.

So it’s not like Amazon.com’s goal is to make the Kindle 2.0 as user friendly as possible, to put it lightly. Today, I did a bit of Kindle related research on behalf of a family member who has impaired vision. She likes to read, but the selection of books she can obtain in large print editions is depressingly limited. Remember how the Authors Guild was accused of insensitivity to blind people? Well it turns out that Amazon.com has gone out of its way to prevent people with vision impairments from reading books in large font sizes on the Kindle 2, at least as reported here:

It has been my distinct pleasure over the last year to work with the Virginia Woolf Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides reading materials in extra large print to the visually impaired. Michael Gold, the Foundation’s executive director, contacted me early last year and we started researching ways to make large print books available on the Kindle. The largest default font size on the Kindle screen is equivalent to a 16-point font in print, but most large print books are published in at least 18-point, if not more. After some trial and error, I was able to get the Kindle to display text in a 20-point font, larger than the largest regular font size, and a significant improvement for the visually impaired.

Since that discovery I have formatted more than 70 books for the Foundation, from recipe books to science fiction. A few of these works are still under copyright, but the Foundation, as a non-profit organization with the specific goal of providing reading resources to the visually impaired, has the right to distribute these titles under U.S. Copyright law (chapter 1 section 121) and even works with publishers when complaints are made.

Despite this exemption, Amazon recently disabled the foundation’s Digital Text Platform (DTP) account and removed their books, all of them, from the Amazon store. The form letter the foundation was sent seems to be the result of an overly-zealous low level employee, not executive management, but the foundation’s repeated attempts to contact someone with authority at Amazon have been unfruitful, mostly due to the completely closed nature of the company.

I am writing about this on Teleread because I think the eBook community needs to know what is happening. eBooks are a perfect medium for distributing reading material to the visually impaired, and the new text-to-speech capabilities of the Kindle 2 are an added benefit to distributing them in the Kindle format. The books sold by the Virginia Woolf Foundation all display at a higher font size than Amazon allows normal books to display in, so the foundation is providing a needed service that Amazon is not.

I encourage you, if you have contacts at Amazon, please contact them and ask that they push the higher-ups to reinstate the foundation’s account and allow them to continue providing these needed resources to the community.

Maybe the copyright law community could actually advocate for visually impaired people, instead of just invoking them for instrumental rhetorical purposes? Here’s hoping.