• 02.11.09

The Big, Stupid Problem with a Kindle that Talks

As we reported yesterday, the new Amazon [AMZN] Kindle can read to you. Apparently, this is a problem.

As we reported yesterday, the new Amazon [AMZN] Kindle can read to you. Apparently, this is a problem.


The Authors’ Guild says that the Kindle’s text-to-speech feature could infringe upon book copyrights. Its probably afraid that a talking Kindle could cannibalize revenues received from selling those audio rights for audiobooks. This isn’t quite justified.

Critics of the Guild say that a talking Kindle shouldn’t threaten anyone, since no one would ditch a human-read audiobook for a computer-read book. This isn’t quite justified, either.

What’s being missed is that a talking Kindle isn’t itself a problem; it’s a disruptive solution to a handful of problems that are so old and seemingly intractable that we’ve forgotten they’re problems at all.

But first, here’s why the two major “problems” with the text-to-speech Kindle–copyright and poor text-to-speech quality–aren’t cause for alarm.

First, copyright: As several copyright experts have noted, the Kindle isn’t really violating any law. What the Kindle’s technology does by reading aloud is testing the boundaries of IP law as it currently exists; that’s why Amazon went ahead with the feature, despite having an army of lawyers at its disposal that could’ve warned the e-retailer off it. Amazon has a good shot at winning any suits brought, and if it doesn’t win, it has the money to pay for the text-to-speech rights if it must. Sure, Macs have been able to read aloud for decades; but since people rarely use this feature, it’s never been ruled upon in a court case.

Then again, authors shouldn’t be worried about the Kindle reading their stuff. For one thing, it’s not in Amazon’s best interest to cannabalize the audiobook industry–it owns Audible, one of the biggest audiobook providers on the planet. Not to mention that people buy audiobooks for two main reasons, neither of which have anything to do with a Kindle: They like hearing someone do a dramatic reading–often the author–with the right emphasis and delivery, and they like being able to listen to books when they drive.

Even if book publishers still wanted to err on the side of caution, it’s too early to make a stink. E-books account for less than 1% of the revenue brought in by book publishers, so any adoption of the text-to-speech feature will be slow enough to let publishers react accordingly, either by hammering out a rights deal with Amazon or by backing a competing medium. As peer-to-peer networks have proven, it can be difficult and prohibitively expensive to sue a company for producing a technology that enables copyright infringement, but doesn’t perform it outright. If authors and publishers get litigious now, they might spend a lot of cash attacking a threat that a judge could deem insignificant.


But contrary to what the Guild’s critics say, people will indeed use the text-to-speech feature, even if it hasn’t seen widespread use in PCs. The technology is quickly improving, so the voices sound less robotic and their pronounciations sound less bizarre. But more important, it enhances the continuity of the reading experience. This is one of those disruptive solutions I mentioned earlier.

Here’s what I mean. The Kindle is a convenience device; it only replaces books in ways they’re inconvenient. Kindle users love taking it on airplanes, subways, and so on, without carrying reams of paper. With a talking Kindle, you can keep “reading” even when your eyes are interrupted. Reading on the train? At your stop, plug in headphones and keep the book going while you walk to work. Teaching your kid to read? Let him load a book on the Kindle and read into it as far as he can, and when he encounters syntax or vocabulary he can’t pronounce, the Kindle can show him how. Kids love doing stuff on their own, and come to think of it, so do the elderly. Their eyes get tired easily, and they often can’t read when they move into low light. The talking Kindle bridges all those conditions, letting you read more at a stretch.

That continuity–plus the cheaper cost of buying Kindle books– will lead to more reading, and faster reading. More reading equals more book sales, and the more of it happening on e-paper, the less manufacturing overhead involved for the publishing companies. After decades operating under a 19th century business model, the book industry can finally become what it truly should be: A lean, profitable repository for creative intellectual property.

So what’s the problem with a talking Kindle? It’s that the publishing industry sees it as a problem at all. In 10 years’ time, it may become the big problem that solved a littany of bigger ones.

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.