The 8,000 member Authors Guild—the RIAA of the publishing world—has complained about the text to speech feature on the Amazon Kindle 2, which can read aloud your ebook in a computerized voice (something text to speech programs have been doing for years). The Guild says that’s equivalent to an audio book, and that Amazon can’t just allow it without paying extra, so last Friday Amazon caved in and announced they’ll let writers and publishers disable the feature on a title by title basis moving forward.
If you don’t own a Kindle 2, the problem obviously won’t immediately affect you. But what’s unfortunate about this is it’s the second time in recent years that the Authors Guild has “won” a specious claim primarily because the bigger entity—Google last year, and now Amazon—didn’t want to go to the trouble and expense of a lawsuit.
With Google, the Authors Guild managed to score a $125 million settlement and arguably interfered with fair use rights under copyright law. Now they’re tampering with the functionality of a consumer device that they should have no control over. Google argues in the LA Times story that what the Kindle 2 was offering was completely within the boundaries set by copyright law, and we agree:
“Kindle 2’s experimental text-to-speech feature is legal: no copy is made, no derivative work is created and no performance is being given,” the company said. “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.”
Lawrence Lessig, founding board member of Creative Commons, points out that by allowing the Authors Guild to prevail, “publishers get to control a right which Congress hasn’t given them—the right to control whether I can read my book to my kid, or my Kindle can read a book to me.”