It’s been a tough few weeks for Amazon.com and its Kindle eBook reader: Advocates for students with disabilities already were disappointed with the company’s Feb. 27 decision to give publishers control over whether a text-to-speech feature is enabled on its second-generation Kindle 2 device, saying Amazon missed a golden opportunity to market the device to students who have trouble reading printed texts.

Now, Amazon also finds itself the subject of a lawsuit by Discovery Communications–the parent company of The Discovery Channel and Discovery Education–over an alleged patent violation.

Discovery says Amazon’s Kindle violates a patent that Discovery registered in 2007, covering the security of electronic book files. Discovery sued Amazon in Delaware on March 17.

Discovery spokeswoman Michelle Russo said the company is seeking "fair compensation" through damages, future royalty payments, and legal fees but will not seek an injunction stopping sales of the Kindle. An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment.

The news comes just a few weeks after Amazon changed course and said it would allow copyright holders to decide whether they will permit their works to be read aloud using the Kindle 2’s new text-to-speech feature.

In mid-February, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the Kindle 2 and announced a text-to-speech feature that would enable an electronic voice to read aloud from books that Kindle 2 users download onto the eBook reader. The text-to-speech feature could have been useful for vision-impaired students.

After a group representing authors expressed concern that the text-to-speech feature would undercut audiobook sales, Amazon issued a statement saying that while it believes the feature is legal, the company will allow copyright holders to determine if it’s a feature they wish to make available.

"No copy is made, no derivative work is created, and no performance is being given," says a statement on Amazon’s web site. "Nevertheless, we strongly believe many rights holders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver’s seat."

Copyright holders are now able to decide on a title-by-title basis whether they would like to enable or disable the text-to-speech feature. Amazon representatives said the company is working on the technical changes required to give authors and publishers that choice.

"With this new level of control, publishers and authors will be able to decide for themselves whether it is in their commercial interests to leave text-to-speech enabled.  We believe many will decide that it is," Amazon said.

Amazon’s move disappointed advocates for students with disabilities, who viewed the Kindle 2’s text-to-speech feature as a powerful tool for those with visual impairments.

"I think people were very excited about it coming out, and only time will tell whether people will demand [text-to-speech functionality] as part of standard operating procedures," said Tracy Gray, director of the National Center for Technology Innovation and a managing research scientist with the American Institutes of Research.

Book authors traditionally have authorized royalty-free copies in specialized formats intended for the visually impaired, and copyright law provides a means to distribute recordings to the blind. Sites such as Bookshare.org distribute royalty-free texts in readable formats for students with print disabilities.

But having text-to-speech functionality built into a standard eBook reading device would have been a giant step forward for students with disabilities, making it even easier for them to have texts in an accessible format.

Gray predicted that publishers who opt not to make a text-to-speech version of their books available on the Kindle could find themselves behind the curve, and that it’s "only a matter of time" before publishers are taken over by the issue.

While Amazon’s decision might not affect many schools, educators who were thinking of buying Kindle 2 devices for their students might balk if they’re unsure of audiobook accessibility, Gray said.

In February, the Authors Guild voiced concerns that the text-to-speech feature "presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry," saying that audiobook sales topped $1 billion in 2007, while eBooks are a "small fraction" of that.

The group advised members who have not yet granted eBook rights to proceed with caution, because "Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your eBooks."

Some industry analysts were skeptical of this claim, arguing that most consumers who wanted books read aloud to them would rather pay for a recording by a professional actor than listen to an electronic voice.

The Authors Guild called Amazon’s decision "a good first step."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

Amazon Kindle

National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard

Bookshare

National Center for Technology Innovation

Authors Guild