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Authors Guild Says Kindle 2's Text-to-Speech Violates Copyright

One of the most interesting new features in Amazon's Kindle 2 e-reader is the text-to-speech function built into the device. It's a primitive bed-time story reader, and while it won't match, say, HAL 9000 for elegance in pronunciation, it's a handy feature if you're in a situation where hearing your book is preferable to reading the text.

But The Author's Guild is now kicking up a fuss, calling the Kindle 2's speech system illegal. In the words of Paul Aiken, Executive Director of the Guild: "They don't have the right to read a book out loud... That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law."

Aiken is claiming that any text-to-speech system that reads aloud from published books is the same as an audio book. An audiobook, which is a voice performance of a text by an actor, a human being, introduces all the emotional flavors and subtle real-life cues into the reading to make the story "come alive" as you listen. That's versus the Kindle 2, which uses an inhuman computer voice to simply regurgitate the written text as the (synthetic) spoken word.

Aside from that artistic fact, the core of Aiken's argument kind of suggests that reading any book out loud may constitute an illegal copyright derivative if you're not authorized to do so—it's a "public performance" of the content. Suddenly reading your kid to sleep seems much more sinister, doesn't it?

Aiken's arguments are probably much less about copyright violation and more about revenue loss, of course. If future e-readers incorporate sophisticated, and more human, text-to-speech systems, then the sales of audio books—another revenue stream for the publishers—may well suffer. One course of action, obviously, would be for the Guild to press for compensation over the use of text-to-speech systems. But that would push the price of e-readers up for the consumer.

This is a classic demonstration of how copyright can stifle innovation. Amazon is bringing the 21st century to the publishing world rather sharply with the Kindle 2—and remember what happened when modern technology crashed headlong into the recording industry? That wasn't, and still isn't, a smooth transition by any means. Imagine if legal action follows the Guild's hard talking—whither the future of electronic book-reading then?

Making an electronic copy of a text is a cheaper by far than producing a real physical book with all the material, production, wages and distribution costs—in much the same way releasing an MP3 version of a record is cheaper too. And Amazon is doing the same for books (curiously, Amazon also owns Audible, one of the largest audio book sellers). Lets hope this doesn't devolve into the same petty arguments and ridiculous lawsuits we saw in the music business.


[via Wall St Journal]