Authors Guild President on the “Kindle Swindle”

Continuing the back-and-forth over the new Kindle’s text-to-speech feature, Roy Blount Jr., president of the Authors Guild, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times.  Along with coming up with a snappy, derogatory catch phrase (is the “Kindle Swindle” an argument against unfairly exploiting authors, or the next dance craze?  you be the judge!), he tries to clarify some of the things that worry the Authors Guild about this technology:

True, you can already get software that will read aloud whatever is on your computer. But Kindle 2 is being sold specifically as a new, improved, multimedia version of books — every title is an e-book and an audio book rolled into one. And whereas e-books have yet to win mainstream enthusiasm, audio books are a billion-dollar market, and growing. Audio rights are not generally packaged with e-book rights. They are more valuable than e-book rights. Income from audio books helps not inconsiderably to keep authors, and publishers, afloat.

This is the real problem for the Authors Guild: text-to-speech may not be copyright infringement per se, but it may pose a threat to the market for an extremely important part of their portfolio nonetheless.  Being able to allege copyright infringement merely gives them a lever to try to protect the market for this property.

He continues:

You may be thinking that no automated read-aloud function can compete with the dulcet resonance of Jim Dale reading “Harry Potter” or of authors, ahem, reading themselves. But the voices of Kindle 2 are quite listenable. There’s even a male version and a female version. (A book by, say, Norman Mailer on Kindle 2 might do a brisk business among people wondering how his prose would sound in measured feminine tones.)

And that sort of technology is improving all the time. I.B.M. has patented a computerized voice that is said to be almost indistinguishable from human ones. This voice is programmed to include “ums,” “ers” and sighs, to cough for attention, even to “shhh” when interrupted. According to Andy Aaron, of I.B.M.’s Thomas J. Watson research group speech team: “These sounds can be incredibly subtle, even unnoticeable, but have a profound psychological effect. It can be extremely reassuring to have a more attentive-sounding voice.”

The Author’s Guild might be overestimating this threat, though.  Sure, these voices get better all the time.  However, when interviewed about the new Kindle on the Daily Show, even Jeff Bezos admitted that the computerized voice is “a little freaky.”

Blount goes on to try to reassure people that the Authors Guild isn’t trying to go after blind people or parents reading to their children:

In fact, publishers, authors and American copyright laws have long provided for free audio availability to the blind and the guild is all for technologies that expand that availability. (The federation, though, points out that blind readers can’t independently use the Kindle 2’s visual, on-screen controls.) But that doesn’t mean Amazon should be able, without copyright-holders’ participation, to pass that service on to everyone.

Cory Doctorow isn’t convinced, though.  On Boing Boing, he writes:

Time and again, the Author’s Guild has shown itself to be the epitome of a venal special interest group, the kind of grasping, foolish posturers that make the public cynically assume that the profession it represents is a racket, not a trade. This is, after all, the same gang of weirdos who opposed the used book trade going online.

Doctorow posits that, even assuming that text-to-speech violates copyright, it would be hard to show that Amazon would be liable, as they are simply making the software and hardware capable of performing the infringement available, much like Sony’s production of betamax players.

If the Authors Guild cannot rely on a direct infringement theory, Doctorow may be right.  However, as discussed in my last post on the topic, the fact that Amazon is transmitting the e-book to the Kindle, and the possibility that the text-to-speech processing could be considered a rendering, the question of whether Amazon could be liable for infringing the right of public performance could be a difficult one.

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