Text-to-speech under attack

February 27, 2009

In case you were not aware, Amazon’s Kindle 2 electronic book contains a text-to-speech feature that reads e-books out loud using synthesized speech.

Amazon's Kindle 2 e-book

Amazon's Kindle 2 e-book

People with vision impairments or who are otherwise unable to read can download the newspaper or a novel from anywhere (it uses 3G over the cell-phone network) and it will read it aloud.

Cool feature, right?

Roy Blount Jr, president of the Author’s Guild doesn’t think so. In the New York Times Mr. Blount wrote an op-ed stating

The Kindle 2 is a portable, wireless, paperback-size device onto which people can download a virtual library of digitalized titles. Amazon sells these downloads, and where the books are under copyright, it pays royalties to the authors and publishers.

Serves readers, pays writers: so far, so good. But there’s another thing about Kindle 2 — its heavily marketed text-to-speech function. Kindle 2 can read books aloud. And Kindle 2 is not paying anyone for audio rights.

The concern is that the Kindle is in competition with the highly lucrative audiobook industry. He’s trying to set a precedent for a time when improved synthesized speech is available such that it sounds as good as human speech. The Kindle’s speech output is not the book itself, he claims, but an unauthorized derivative work, which is a violation of copyright.

This looks like a job for Captain Copyright!

This looks like a job for Captain Copyright!

A have so many problems with the Author’s Guild stance here that I don’t know how to start…

#1 First, there is no audiobook version of the New York Times, but there is a downloadable Kindle one. So even if someone wanted to buy an audio newspaper, one would not be available.

(This was one of the best arguments in favor of keeping the old Napster alive. It made available many things that had gone out of print and were not available for legal sale even for someone willing to pay for it.)

#2 Second, there is no copyright problem with me reading a book to someone else, provided either of us acquired the book legally. How is it different that there is a machine doing the same job?

#3 Third, we are so far away from realistic synthesized speech that can replace actors and recording studio technicians that who seriously gives a crap about this?

#4 This whole thing smacks of protecting the buggy whip manufacturers‘ business model. It is the 21st century, deal with it. As the boundaries between one medium and another blur, the artificial walls between them only serve to restrict artistic freedom rather than support it.

Not all authors are with the Author’s Guild on this one. Cory Doctorow (no big surprise here), Wil Wheaton, and Neil Gaiman all have commented on how stupid this is.

I’ll come back later with this and talk about it from a pure disabilities standpoint. I’m still outraged about this because of the copyright standpoint so I haven’t even processed how much this is an attack on people with disabilites.

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