This week’s big news in books, of course, was the official unveiling of the Kindle 2, Amazon’s second-generation ebook reader. Michael Gaudet of E-reads offers his appraisal, noting some of the new Kindle’s enhancements:
- slimmer, with more memory and longer battery life
- faster screen refresh
- redesigned buttons for navigation
- faster book downloads, and “Whispersync” to keep multiple Kindles synchronized wirelessly
- a text-to-speech voice synthesizer, to read your books aloud to you
These all sound like pretty nice enhancements. But as I look at the device, I’m not regretting my choice of the Sony PRS-700. The built-in light and the touchscreen on the Sony still put it way out in front, in my book (so to speak).
But the Kindle announcement hasn’t come without blowback. “They don’t have the right to read a book out loud,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. “That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.” (From the Wall Street Journal online.)
I’m a member of the Authors Guild, and I was a little horrified to hear Mr. Aiken make this claim—because to my way of thinking, having a Kindle (or any device) read a file aloud should be no different in copyright terms from my reading a book aloud to my family. I mean, really.
And yet, I understand why he made the statement. Authors often license audio rights separately from other rights. There’s a natural concern about anything that could cut into audiobook sales. But to me, there’s a big difference between a machine reading of a stream of text and a professionally produced audio reading by a professional reader who gives the reading inflection and expression, perhaps with the help of music and sound effects. Now, it may well be that some people who like audio books will forego buying audiobooks if their Kindle will read text aloud in a computer voice. (Given that Amazon owns Audible, I imagine there were some in-house discussions about this.) So clearly this is an arguable point. But I still don’t agree with Mr. Aiken, even though he speaks for my organization.
I’ve been frustrated for years that read-aloud is disabled on my own ebooks sold through outlets such as fictionwise.com (a retailer I am otherwise very happy with, I hasten to add). The only format, until now, in which this was relevant was Microsoft Reader format, because only MS Reader had that capability. I’ve always felt that if people bought my ebooks and they preferred (or needed) to listen to it through a computer-synthesized voice, they should have that choice. Why not? They bought the book. It turns out that the disabling of this feature is the policy of Fictionwise. But I wonder now, in light of the statement from the Authors Guild, if maybe it’s based on fear of backlash from publishers who might see text-to-speech as an infringement of audio rights.
What a crazy business. I suppose one day computer synthesized voices, combined with AI-comprehension of a book’s content, could produce a sufficiently expressive reading that it might compete with a true audiobook. But that seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.
For now, my basic position is, whatever gets people buying and reading books (both e- and p-) is probably good. Whatever gets in the way of it is almost certainly bad.