The Kindle aint no swindle, Roy
The latest version of Amazon's ebook reader, the Kindle 2, has been attracting plenty of positive attention for its slimline form, style and functionality but has also drawn criticism from an unexpected quarter - from Authors Guild President and humorist, Roy Blount Jr, who isn't amused about the Kindle's new text to speech functionality.
The Kindle 2 has a function that allows published works that are downloaded onto the device to be converted into speech and played back through the small speakers in the device in either a male or female voice, functionality that will no doubt be attractive to the visually impaired, drivers on long trips or for people who are simply too damn lazy to read the book themselves.
The Authors Guild is in a tizzy because it feels that the Kindle 2 is going to undermine the billion dollar a year audiobook market. Blount apparently wasn't joking when he wrote in a New York Times editorial this week that 'authors have a right to a fair share of the value that audio adds to Kindle 2's version of books'.
An article on the Guild's Web site even goes as far as suggesting that publishers should push Amazon to cripple the new Kindle by disabling the text to speech function:
'Publishers certainly could contractually prohibit Amazon from adding audio functionality to its ebooks without authorization, and Amazon could comply by adding a software tag that would prohibit its machine from creating an audio version of a book unless Amazon has acquired the appropriate rights'.
The Authors Guild is proposing that people who pay for an ebook should be further taxed if they want to buy a device to listen to it. But when publishers commission audiobooks they invest in a new product which results in the creation of a new copyright - the audio recording - which can be exploited through CDs and downloads. Audiobook publishers commission famous actors to read the books and invest a considerable amount of time and money in the product to make it compelling. When the Kindle converts a book into speech however there is no additional investment required from publishers and since the user has already purchased the book, conceivably no loss either.
Audio recordings and the public performance of copyrighted works are protected by the copyright laws, however the Kindle doesn't infringe either of these rights, when the Kindle interprets the text on the page and translates that into speech it doesn't create a new copyrighted work, and the text to speech function is clearly intended for personal, not commercial, use.
The Kindle's text to speech functionality isn't infringing any copyright, it is simply taking a work that you've purchased and consuming it in a different way in much the same way that sound editing software can represent songs as sound waves on a computer screen, and even record industry executives haven't gone as far as demanding royalties on that.
In his editorial Blount shortsightedly points out that the ebook market is as yet unproven whereas the audiobook market is worth a billion dollars - but shouldn't that be a reason to support ebook manufacturers not to attack them? Ebooks have the potential to greatly increase the efficient distribution of books and newspapers in an environmentally friendly way that will reduce the physical costs of printing and distribution of books, achieving cost savings and greater revenues for publishers and authors to an extent which should eventually far outstrip revenues from audiobooks. Amazon and other ebook reader manufacturers should be supported for creating devices which provide new avenues for book sales, not lambasted for it.
In any event the whole debate about the Kindle 2 could be somewhat premature if early user reviews are anything to go by. According to Web entrepreneur, Michael Roe, who recently purchased a Kindle 2, the device's text to speech function isn't anything to write home about, 'the Kindle's text to speech capabilities are about as sophisticated as and as useful as the text to speech capabilities on my 4 year old Apple laptop'. Roe said that he didn't think that the new functionality would change his media consumption habits at all, 'when I want to read I'll read, when I want an audiobook I would download an audiobook.'
At a time when the ebook market is still very much in its infancy, a device like the Kindle offers an exciting new distribution mechanism which may do for books, newspapers and blogs what the iPod has done for music and radio. The Authors Guild should be supporting Amazon, not threatening lawsuits, because if this argument ends up in court it will ultimately be consumers that are the big losers.