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 Audible.com? 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 Macmillandictionary.com, 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.