Robotic speech synthesizer threatens to undermine audiobook sales

Did you know that using the text-to-speech feature of your shiny new Amazon Kindle 2 is a violation of copyrights?

No? Well, guess what? It is, says the Author’s Guild.

“They don't have the right to read a book out loud,” says Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken. “That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

As published in an “E-Book Rights Alert” published to the Authors Guild website, the Kindle’s robotic text-to-speech synthesis poses a “significant challenge to the publishing industry.”

The memo goes on to warn authors that unless Amazon acquires text-to-speech rights from publishers, authors should avoid turning their back catalogues into e-books as it might undermine their audio market.

Setting aside Mr. Aiken’s seemingly clumsy understanding of copyright law, the Authors Guild seems to be reacting the same way to technology a few other intellectual property associations – the RIAA, the MPAA, and their international counterpart.

While an angry missive from the Author’s Guild is much smaller in scale than, say, the MPAA’s attempt to kill VCRs on similar grounds – not to mention the fact that VCRs actually copy things by design, whereas the Kindle does not – it’s worth noting that the Kindle 2 and its text-to-speech feature have only been known about for the past week.

The Authors Guild does have some leverage, however, and it looks like it may try to use it: member publishers could cut or alter their contracts, which could put Amazon in an interesting position. Neither is the guild is afraid of lawsuits, so don’t count them completely out: don’t forget that this was the group took Google to task for its book-scanning program, which ended up in a painful $125 million settlement in the Guild’s favor.

Update 16-Feb: In a "reading to your kids" footnote at the end of its statement, the Authors Guild says its perfectly fine to verbally read a book out loud, provided it's not for a public performance. The Guild says it also doesn't have an issue with the Kindle 2's text-to-speech, as long as it is being read from "from an authorized audio copy."

"We are going to continue to work with them to make sure they understand the reality of the Internet.  A lot of these people don't have Ph.Ds, and they don't have a degree in computer science." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis
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