No release of a new and improved version of an already powerful piece of technology would be as interesting without a little controversy. Apparently the Authors Guild is upset about the new Kindle’s text-to-speech feature, claiming that it could “undermine the market for audio books” (Associated Press). The Wall Street Journal has a bit more to say on that:
Some publishers and agents expressed concern over a new, experimental feature that reads text aloud with a computer-generated voice.
“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.”
Now, quite a few folks with far more authority than myself have already spoken up on the issue, including Robert J. Sawyer and Neil Gaiman. They’ve made some fairly good arguments about the whole thing and I’d like to toss my two cents into the game.
The problem with all this is that it is flirting dangerously close to the same line the music industry so idiotically crossed. And the music industry hasn’t contracted so much as literature has. True, as I’ve mentioned before, readership hasn’t actually drastically changed. Book sales are still high, with exception to everything following this massive recession we’re so firmly stuck in, and the same amount of people, if not a little more, are reading books now as much as they were about ten years ago–not to mention that most teenagers read a lot more these days than their parents did simply because access to the written word, particularly on subjects kids are interested in, is far better thanks to the Interwebs.
What does this mean for the book industry if it crosses the line? It could spell disaster for it. The music industry was enormous when piracy first came into the public sphere. When they tried to stomp down on it by imposing harsh punishments and DRMing everything imaginable, they found that folks were far more willing to flip the bird to the big record labels and switch to the indie scene. But, the music industry didn’t die. It was big enough to survive its mistakes and it has done a decent job doing so. iTunes, as much as I despise it, has helped curb the piracy empire, though it hasn’t stopped. The music industry was at least smart enough to realize that it needed to begin changing its ways if it wanted to continue being profitable.
The book industry, however, could find themselves in a horrible position by trying to impose the same rules. With all these electronic reading devices out there, if the book industry isn’t careful it could find that people will stop buying books entirely and use the electronic formats to get books for free. Add on to the fact that there is a thriving indie book community (podcasting, blog novels, etc.) and you can see where being music-industry-anal could spell certain doom.
Audio rights are important; I’m not going to deny that. All rights are important, but when we start talking about suing Amazon for having text-to-speech technology installed on the Kindle Two, it’s like saying we’re going to sue mothers for reading to their children. Why should Amazon have to pay what would likely be an absurd amount of money for a feature that isn’t all that great anyway?
Yeah, okay, I get the argument that some day technology will progress enough to make text-to-speech sound like something other than a craptastic, semi-realistic, mostly-robotic, humanoid demon. But that’s not happening tomorrow and it’s probably not happening for years. When that happens, then start bitching. Until it does, why can’t we stick with this feature? It won’t influence audiobook sales because people who like audiobooks are still going to buy them. A robotic voice cannot meet the production quality of a good audiobook. Period. And the people who are likely to use this feature regularly are probably not going to be people who would have paid the somewhat high price for an audiobook in the first place.
Before we toss the almighty book of lawsuits at Amazon for adding a useful feature to their new techno-gizmo, we should consider the ramifications of that and the reality of the situation as a whole. We’re treading on dangerous ground in considering using the law to thwart technological progress; we’d be one step away from suing parents for reading to their kids, or blind people using a computer to read a book to themselves (a book they already paid $14.99 for)–or people reading to blind people, perhaps. When Amazon’s technology is able to actually replace audiobooks, then you can start demanding compensation. And maybe that will never happen. Maybe the next step for the Kindle (the Kindle Three, perhaps) is to make it capable of having both eBooks and audiobooks. That would make everyone happy, right? Imagine if Amazon’s enormous selling engine made it easier to buy and sell audiobooks through a wireless device? Consider that before we start making rash decisions and crossing the line.