The Authors Guild Went too Far to Eradicate Amazon’s read-aloud Feature

E-readers like Kindle should be allowed to have a read-aloud feature for their e-books in a text-to-speech (TTS) format. The Authors Guild was wrong and petty in asking them to remove it. Read-aloud TTS features do not violate any copyright laws, and are an aid to the visually impaired and useful to commuters. By asking Amazon to disable the TTS function on its Kindle 2, which was released in 2009, they stifled innovation and made themselves laughable by incorrectly interpreting copyright laws. The Authors Guild took things too far to prove a point. They also claimed that it infringed on audio book rights.

Traditionally, audio rights are a subsidiary right, which “refers to licensing agreement provisions for copyrighted material published in derivative formats, where licensed publishers are granted legal authorization to publish or produce copyrighted media.” Amazon’s Kindle 2 had a function called “read-aloud” in a TTS format, but almost immediately the Author’s Guild accused them of violating copyright and wanted to take Amazon to court. “The Authors Guild objected to the text-to-speech function, saying Amazon doesn’t have the right to essentially turn e-books into audio books.” ““They created a hybrid product,”” Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, said when reached by phone late Friday. “It was being used in a way they had not been given permission for.”

Amazon quietly capitulated without any legal proceedings because they didn’t want to deal with the hassle and legal fees. It isn’t hard to see why as “with Google, the Authors Guild managed to score a $125 million settlement and arguably interfered with fair use rights under copyright law.” But had they gone to court, Amazon would have won.

For Amazon to be violating copyright, they would have to create a derivative work of an original work, or create a reproduction, or unlawfully distribute copyrighted materials. A derivative work is “a work based upon one or more preexisting works . . . which, as a whole, represent[s] an original work of authorship. A book being read aloud by a machine is neither creative nor is it independent of the original work. To create a reproduction, said reproduction must be in a fixed format. Since the Kindle TTS application is not being recorded, there is no fixed format for which to reproduce the work. This is like saying that if I read a book out loud I am violating the right of creating a reproduction. Many journalists, scholars, and even authors have jumped on this point. “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.” Amazon was also not unlawfully distributing materials. They have a licence to sell their Kindle e-readers, and they are not distributing audio copies as those are made up on the spot.

There is also the question of TTS itself. “There shouldn’t be anything controversial about TTS: it’s been available on personal computers since the 1970s. It’s important to people who have impaired or no vision, but little used by anyone else. However, the Authors Guild argues that the audio rights for a book are different from the reading rights, even if the audio is provided by a software robot.” Some may argue that photocopiers have been around just as long, but in truth that is an entirely different beast. A photocopier always makes a copy in a tangible, permanent form, whereas as TTS does no such thing.

Many lawyers have upheld the fact that Amazon did not violate any copyright laws. “Ben Sheffner, a Los Angeles copyright attorney and author of the blog Copyrights & Campaigns, said Amazon probably reversed course to maintain good relationships with authors, not because of legal concerns. Sheffner said that Amazon probably wouldn’t need different rights to sell an e-book with the text-to-speech function enabled.” It is sad that Amazon did not fight for TTS on their Kindles as even though no legal precedent was set, a recognizable precedent was set nonetheless.

On March 2nd, 2009 the Author’s Guild website announced that “at the end of the business day on Friday, Amazon announced that it would allow publishers (and thereby many authors) to block text-to-speech audio functionality on a title-by-title basis for its Kindle 2 reading device.” They lauded it as a great victory for authors everywhere.  But was it really? What did they actually achieve? As author John Scalzi noted: “Has it escaped the general notice of folks that the same company that is putting out the Kindle is also the same company that owns Yes, Amazon owns both, and I don’t really see the company trying to put one section of itself out of business with the other.” Why would Amazon undercut their own audio book sales, for which author are compensated.

The Authors Guild also claim that the read-aloud function violated audio book rights. By their argument audio books are a feature of an e-book as well as they a separate product. They cannot be one and the same. An audio book, as defined by, is “a book that is read out loud, usually by an actor, and recorded as an MP3 file or on a CD etc.” This definition clearly excludes TTS. Not to mention that a real audio book is far superior to a TTS “audio book” (Stephen Fry read all seven Harry Potter books aloud for Audible with a masterful skill at giving all the voices different voices). A machine cannot read with proper pauses or intonation.

Lastly, not only did the Authors Guild wrongfully ask Amazon to disable their TTS feature, they also stifled innovation, which is a worrying trend. As Lawrence Lessig points out “the bigger trend here is much more troubling: Innovative technology company (Amazon (Kindle 2), Google (Google Books)) releases new innovative way to access or use content; so-called “representatives” of rights owners, Corleone-like, baselessly insist on a cut; innovative technology company settles with baseless demanders, and we’re all arguably worse off.”

E-readers like Kindle should be aloud to have a read-aloud TTS function. The Authors Guild was wrong to want to take Amazon to court over this innovation because Amazon did not violate any copyright laws, or any audio book rights. This reversal on Amazon’s part sets a precedent, and makes consuming books harder for the visually impaired and commuters. The Authors Guild took things too far to prove a point.


















2 Replies to “The Authors Guild Went too Far to Eradicate Amazon’s read-aloud Feature”

  1. I agree with the central premise of the essay. The author has made a forthright attack on the Author Guild’s imperious behavior in exerting control over how readers, particularly those with visual disabilities, are able to read.

    However, minus the polemics, this essay gets underserved with repetitive quotes. It takes a stand that is hard to counter but seems to flag in its second half as longer quotes replace the author’s own reflections.

    The author has perfunctorily stated that ‘Read-aloud TTS features do not violate any copyright laws’; even though notable lawyers have attested to this, it would have been nice to see a contrary viewpoint, which even if flawed, would have given some idea of the Guild’s motivations behind taking Amazon to task for something so seemingly innocuous. Was it just a case of pettiness or does the Guild have deeper reasons behind it?

    I think it would have served the author better in going deeper into the comparison with audio books. For example, the author did not mention that in 2009, at the time the Author’s Guild raised their objections over TTS, audio books were, at the very least, a billion dollar industry whereas e-books hadn’t quite broken ground in the way they did in subsequent years. Emphasizing publishers’ and the Author’s Guild’s concerns over the possibility of having a lucrative market put at risk is essential in understanding the gravity and complexity of the issue.

    By explaining that the TTS is different from photocopying, the author was able to convince me that using TTS is not akin to making a permanent and sharable copy of something. However, in the same vein, the comparison between the TTS issue and the Google Book lawsuit in 2008 does not hold up. The Google precedent seems like a reference made in passing; it may certainly have discouraged Amazon from sticking to its guns, but in the case of Google, excerpts of the scanned books were, by virtue of being available online, a sharable if not a permanent copy.

    Some minor points in the essay, such as ‘A machine cannot read with proper pauses or intonation’ would have been more convincing with citations.

    This conflict between Amazon and the Guild came to the forefront in 2009; it would have been interesting to know if the situation, at all, has changed since and how.

    All in all, I think the essay raised some important points and is very compelling in driving its point forward but it ignores certain nuances that should have been dealt with.

  2. This essay speaks to the peculiar case of audiobooks and read-aloud features, thereby giving us some insight into copyright implications of automatically generated digital formats. It raises important questions about the very definition of a digital work, and it causes us to think about the legal precedents that such cases would set.

    The essay, however, presents only a single side of the argument, without giving the reader a clear sense of what the Author’s Guild legal argument was or even their motivations. While we can see why the Author’s Guild would want to stop TTS from being available, it is not clear what legal grounds they would have to stop it.

    On the whole, the essay leaves the reader wanting more detail into the legal aspects, the Guild’s motivations, and the author’s view of the repercussions of this case. These, and other angles not pursued by the author would have greatly strengthened this essay.

    Finally, hearing the author’s own voice throughout the piece would have helped to better engage the reader. The over-reliance on lengthy quotes (and quotes of quotes) from other sources makes for a fragmented argument and masks the author’s own take on the subject.

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