A Chat with the Authors Guild

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…

0 Responses

  1. Andrew Timson
    | Reply

    There's also the question of who, exactly, is using "technological means to produce a sound version of the book" when the Kindle is reading aloud—is it Amazon, or is it the end user? If it's the user, then isn't reading aloud themselves doing the same thing (the sound version coming out of their mouths, the technological means the Kindle)?

    And if it's Amazon, what are the lawyers smoking? 😉

  2. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Well…I don’t think so. When you play an audiobook CD, clearly you’re using a sound technology. When you have a Kindle read aloud, you’re using a sound technology. Not so when you read aloud yourself. I think the real issue, in this view, is that there’s an enabling technology that isn’t about reading the book, it’s about hearing the book. I think the key point, as the Guild sees it, is the interaction of the licensed content (the book) with the sound technology–and the fact that people have already signed contracts that grant, or don’t grant, the exclusive right to do that.

    It’s a tricky area. I’m not saying I’ve completely come around to agreeing with the Guild’s position (but then, I’m not privy to other people’s contracts, whereas the Guild sees thousands of them). But I no longer think they’re smoking something funny. 🙂

  3. Daniel Ly
    | Reply

    It is a non-issue whether programs are allowed to read e-books aloud. This is just beating around the bush. The whole copyright idea is bogus.

    Why? QuestionCopyright.org can tell this a lot better than I can. But let me try and add a few words of my own here.

    Mr Carver, I suppose that you have income from copyright royalties. So I suppose that you are not disposed to give up copyright on your works. But what if there were workable alternatives to copyright allowing hard working creators an income, but without granting some entities a monopoly of many years?

  4. Daniel Ly
    | Reply

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    If you’re going to start out by saying that copyright is bogus, you won’t get a very sympathetic hearing from me. Copyright might be changing, but it’s anything but bogus.

    I presume you’ve read only this entry, and not my blog generally–because if you followed my blog, you’d know that I’ve given away tens of thousands of free ebooks, DRM-free. So yes, I’m interested in approaches other than the tried and true (but perhaps now flagging).

    You might want to take a less arrogant-seeming approach to proposing your ideas if you want anyone to listen to you.

  6. Daniel Ly
    | Reply

    I read the first three of Chaos Chronicles and discovered your blog. I think that you deserve respect as a creator. I did not mean disrespect. I did not want to annoy you. Perhaps it also happened because English is not my native tongue. I am sorry about that.

  7. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Ah–I see. Well, sorry for jumping on you, then. 🙂 I misunderstood.

    Here’s the thing. I don’t believe copyright is going away anytime soon. But I do believe we need to adapt to the new world order, and that may include changing how artists are going to be compensated for creating and sharing their art. What that picture is going to be, I don’t know. I have tried the avenue of giving away downloads, and I have found that it does, indeed, seem to stimulate sales (though it’s hard to know by how much). And many people have been generous with paypal donations. That said, I’m still nowhere near earning a living income from my writing. Maybe that’s just tough, and that’s the way life is. Or maybe there are other avenues I haven’t tried yet.

    I did look at the site you mentioned, and while it has some good ideas (and some not-so-good, in my opinion), it really doesn’t offer much in the way of a compensation model that’s persuasive to me. I’m still looking, on that score.

    When I released my free ebooks (starting with the Chaos books) I thought about using the Creative Commons license. I didn’t, for subtle reasons, but the basic principle of the CC license is, I think, useful for many situations.

    Anyway, this all started (here) with the issue of the Kindle’s text-to-speech capability. And one of the bottom lines there is that there are existing, legally binding, contracts. And neither Amazon nor the writers nor the publishers can simply pretend they don’t exist. But nothing in the Amazon/Guild fallout says that the rights-holder can’t simply throw open the door and say, “Sure–go with it. Let the Kindle read it aloud. Enjoy.” As I have done with my ebooks.

  8. Daniel Ly
    | Reply

    Thanks a lot. I am happy that my words do not inflict so much irritation any more. I think I have been too provocative.

    Sure I know that we have to find a way to live with the world as is. Laws and contracts are binding whether we like them or not. I started studying law just because intellectual property is such a controversial issue and I want to understand the whole thing better.

    I wonder about these subtle reasons about Creative Commons. What has been the hitch?

    And perhaps you were looking for the idea of a balanced buyout at QuestionCopyright.org?

Post your comment before you lose your train of thought. (Mine already left the station.)