Amazon’s recently released Kindle 2, a portable book reader, may very well reinvent the way humans experience books, but it may also force the United States into rethinking an age-old copyright law.
That seems to be the implication of a decision by Amazon to remove the text-to-speech option for certain titles available on it’s brand new Kindle 2. Until recently, Amazon has been widely advertising the text-to-speech function of the Kindle 2, which was to allow a user to have any of their purchased e-books read aloud by a computerized voice. Although there are bound to be shortfalls associated with the function – digitally produced voices frequently lack inflection and rhythm – the option has been celebrated by many, including those with vision impairments.
But leaders of the Authors Guild said the Kindle 2’s spoken versions of works infringe on writers’ rights to sell traditional audio books, tossing a legal wrench into Amazon’s plans. Ray Blount Jr, president of the Authors Guild, said the voice was “quite listenable” and therefore a threat to the sales of other audio books. This was an especially serious problem because, while authors are not yet able to make much money from the sale of “e-books,” there is still quite a market for audio books. Thus the copyright issue becomes important.
Actually, there is no mention of “audio rights” for writers anywhere in U.S. copyright law – authors have always had to copyright the “books on tape” as separate entities. But the Authors Guild encouraged writers not to license their works to Amazon for use with the Kindle 2 until the two parties could reach some agreement.
And so they did. Amazon, apparently thinking it would be best not to upset a group of people they were clearly depending on for the Kindle 2’s content, announced they would allow authors and publishers to decide whether to allow the text-to-speech option for specific books. Amazon said in public statements that the company believed writers would feel more comfortable with the speech function if they were “in the driver’s seat.” Regardless, the move took many consumers by surprise, especially since many have already placed orders for the Kindle 2, which began shipping last week.
Despite this particular win for the Authors Guild, it seems unlikely this issue will go away anytime soon. Several authors went on record dissenting with the Guild’s position, and the reaction from the blogging community and news website commenters was generally in favor of a text-to-speech free-for-all. The battle being fought by authors now seems very similar to that which has been fought by musicians since the days of Napster. Like those in so many other time-honored businesses, authors are probably still in the first stages of a struggle to survive in a digital world.
Roy Blount Jr.’s column in the New York Times