Friday, February 13, 2009

The Authors Guild Goes After The Kindle 2

Both Tuesday's Wall Street Journal and yesterday's Publisher's Weekly had articles about The Authors Guild's response to the new Kindle 2, which will start being shipped out beginning February 24.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I haven't been bowled over by the regressive stances taken by The Authors Guild. And the latest contretemps isn't doing anything to change my opinion.

One of the new features of the Kindle 2 is the Text-to-Speech function, which reads the e-book out loud with a computer-generated voice.

According to The Wall Street Journal:
"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."
The Authors Guild posted a statement on its website here. The comment included the following:
This presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry. Audiobooks surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2007; e-book sales are just a small fraction of that. While the audio quality of the Kindle 2, judging from Amazon's promotional materials, is best described as serviceable, it's far better than the text-to-speech audio of just a few years ago. We expect this software to improve rapidly.

We're studying this matter closely and will report back to you. In the meantime, we recommend that if you haven't yet granted your e-book rights to backlist or other titles, this isn't the time to start. If you have a new book contract and are negotiating your e-book rights, make sure Amazon's use of those rights is part of the dialog.
Yahoo had this to say:
The challenge revolves around audiobooks, which are treated separately from printed material from a copyright standpoint. A retailer can't record a copy of a book on a CD and sell it or bundle it along with a novel without paying a separate fee, just as buying a copy of an audiobook doesn't entitle you to a free copy of the printed version.

Amazon -- and many legal observers -- vehemently question this stance, noting that an automated text-to-speech system isn't the same as a pre-recorded audio book . . . Since the Kindle doesn't store a copy of the book on the device in an audio format, but rather converts from text on the fly, it seems likely that Amazon is on the right side of the law on this one.
The thing is, every audiobook I've ever purchased was read out loud by actors, and had sound effects, including music.

My new laptop has a Text-to-Speech feature. A computerized voice is a freaking long way from any audiobook I've ever heard.

I want to understand the slippery slope argument here, but I'm having some difficulty.

And coming fresh off Cory Doctorow's speech to Microsoft (see yesterday's post), I can't help but remember these words, which Doctorow gave permission for others to copy:
Whenever a new technology has disrupted copyright, we've changed copyright. Copyright isn't an ethical proposition, it's a utilitarian one . . .

Technology that disrupts copyright does so because it simplifies and cheapens creation, reproduction and distribution. The existing copyright businesses exploit inefficiencies in the old production, reproduction and distribution system, and they'll be weakened by the new technology. But new technology always gives us more art with a wider reach: that's what tech is *for*.

Tech gives us bigger pies that more artists can get a bite out of. That's been tacitly acknowledged at every stage of the copyfight since the piano roll. When copyright and technology collide, it's copyright that changes.

Which means that today's copyright -- the thing that DRM nominally props up -- didn't come down off the mountain on two stone tablets. It was created in living memory to accommodate the technical reality created by the inventors of the previous generation. To abandon invention now robs tomorrow's artists of the new businesses and new reach and new audiences that the Internet and the PC can give them.
If history has taught us anything, it is that technology cannot be stopped. The auto manufacturers tried to bury the electric car because they were convinced gas guzzlers were the wave of the future. We know how that worked out. If the American auto industry had begun to adapt years ago, they wouldn't be facing the crisis they are confronting today.

IMHO, The Authors Guild does writers no favors by encouraging them to cling to a model that is ultimately doomed to failure. Sure, they may win a battle or two, but the outcome of the war is already determined.

Writers need to learn to straddle both worlds--print and e-books--and to move forward with their readers, not against them.


Peter L. Winkler said...

There have been dedicated text to speech hardware and software based screen readers availabe for years. If the Authors Guild never objected to them, I believe they will lose this case, as they should.

I wonder what the AG's members think of the organization squandering its funds pursuing such a fatuous, frivolous lawsuit as this one is?

Nathan Bransford said...

I'm still deciding how I feel about this, but I don't think it's right to pounce on the AG. This is a murky area, and I don't think it's necessary for authors to bend over backwards in the name of new technology.

This is indeed a slippery slope, and I'm glad the AG is standing up for the right for authors to be included in the discussion on how their content is utilized.

Maya Reynolds said...

Nathan: I agree the AG is trying to do the right thing by their authors. However, my issue with them is that they continue--time and time again--to take a regressive attitude. IMHO, they need to get in front of the new technology, not fight the incoming tide.

My next post will talk about this some more.



Maya Reynolds said...

Peter: I am relatively certain most members of the AG would support the Guild's stand.

The status quo system always becomes invested in protecting the status quo until that system begins to crumble. I suspect this is a case of myopia.

And you know how I feel about Amazon. I think its vertical control presents the biggest threat to writers today. But in this case, I suspect they will--and should--win . . . although they may choose the Google Solution. Pay pennies to placate the status quo, thus ensuring their further hegemony and creating a larger barrier to newbies trying to enter their game.

Jolie said...

Jesus god. I do NOT understand what the fuss is. It's good that authors are getting a chance to participate in the dialogue via Authors Guild, but in the end, if anyone truly believes that text-to-speech software could encroach on audiobooks' territory I won't know whether to laugh or cry.

Audiobooks are works of art in themselves. This whole kerfluffle must be pretty insulting to the people who read aloud for audiobooks. There can be no comparison between a robotic text-to-speech voice and the extra dimension of creativity that audiobook voice actors add to the original printed work. The experience of listening to a robot Kindle voice and listening to an audiobook would be astronomically different for consumers.

Sharon said...

I like your analogy to the electric car. Seems like the new technology is here to stay. It's a matter of finding a way to co-exist.

Nathan Bransford said...


Again, I don't think it's quite so clear cut. The issue, in my opinion, isn't whether this is going to infringe on the audiobook market, but whether Amazon should have to pay for the right to do allow these books to be digitally read and has the right to do so.

Technology allows all sorts of things. It allows books to be sent instantaneously around the world, it allows endless copying of files, and all the rest. But limits are drawn to protect rights holders. Just because a technology exists doesn't mean it must be exploited to the detriment of content providers.

Every Day Bloggers said...

Great post, Maya. With your permission, I'd like to link to it on Everyday Bloggers this week, and also insert Cory's quote. This is important stuff and we need to reach as many authors as possible.

I, for one, have ignored technology too long. I'm great for loving my Mac, but as soon as something comes along I don't understand, I ignore it. As you've wisely pointed out, that's not going to make it go away.


Maya Reynolds said...

Joylene: As long as you post it in its entirety giving a link back to this blog and attribution, that is fine.

Thanks for asking.



Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I most certainly will, Maya. Thank you.

sexy said...