I wrote here earlier about my reaction to Authors Guild statements that Amazon’s new Kindle 2 may be infringing on rights with its real-aloud capability. (You can hear a demo of the Kindle 2 reading here. It’s way better than Microsoft Reader or Adobe Reader.) I said that having an electronic gizmo read text aloud is no threat to the performance quality of an audiobook. I still feel that way. But…
I emailed the Authors Guild to say I was worried they were picking the wrong fight, that they were only getting in the way of a technological development that could help make our ebooks more useful—and attractive—to consumers. I got a call back from Paul Aiken of the Guild, and we had a nice, long conversation.
Paul pointed out something that I hadn’t really thought of: No matter what we think about the audio experience, and whether it’s live or recorded, and whether or not it’s good for the customer and bad for the audiobook business, there’s something we need to consider—that text-to-speech function may violate existing contract terms. Which contracts? The ones writers and publishers sign with audiobook companies, which specify exactly what is meant by “audio.” Kindle might be infringing on rights, for example, that an audiobook company has paid for—such a contract, for example, defining “audio” by terms such as the use of technological means to produce a sound version of the book. These contracts already exist, by the thousands.
(None of this, by the way, has anything thing to do with the rights of the blind—which are secured by law, as they should be—or the rights of a person to read a book aloud. Those are entirely unrelated issues.)
So what does the Guild want? As I understood Paul, the Guild wants to ensure, before this whole thing goes too far, that contractual rights are honored, that parties who have reserved or purchased the right to use technology to produce audible versions of a work be paid for such a use. It doesn’t really matter whether we feel that a machine’s reading is equivalent to a professional recording. What matters is the definitions in the book contracts.
If the Guild isn’t trying to stop the technology, but simply to ensure proper compensation, how might this work? It could take the form of a small surcharge added to an ebook purchase, to enable read-aloud capability—with a royalty for having read-aloud enabled going directly to the audio rights-holder. Many ebooks already have enable/disable switches on their Microsoft Reader and Adobe editions. (My own ereads books, for reasons that escape me, have read-aloud enabled for Microsoft Reader and disabled for Adobe Reader.) If things go this way, I’d personally prefer to see the cost built right into the price of the ebook, and not make it something a buyer would have to think about at the point of purchase. But that’s a detail.
While my own gut feeling about synthetic text-to-speech hasn’t changed as a result of this conversation, my understanding of what the Guild wants to do has. There are a zillion book contracts out there that define what constitutes an audible presentation of a book. Those contracts can’t be wished away by Amazon or by the book buyer, or, for that matter, by me. Although I’ve previously compared this question to the entertainment industry’s attempts to stop the VCR, maybe a more apt comparison is the Hollywood writers trying to get fair royalties for the use of their work on DVDs and the net—not trying to stop the new technologies, but to make sure that structures are in place to guarantee them their fair share of the profit.
This, I’m sure, promises to be an ongoing story. As they say in the TV biz: To be continued…