Thursday, February 12, 2009

E-Book Text-to-Speech: A Legal Quandary

I'm not sure how I feel about this. There's a debate brewing over whether the Sony Kindle 2's Read-To-Me feature infringes an author's copyrights.

Here's the issue. The Kindle 2 offers a feature called Read-To-Me, which is a text-to-speech option that enables the Kindle read the book out loud. Sounds harmless, right? The problem is this. Sony has a right to sell you a copy of the book, but Sony does not have the right to sell you a recording of the book. In other words, Sony's contract does not permit them to sell what are in effect audiobooks. Publishing contracts specify what type of rights the author or copyright owners are giving away in exchange for compensation.

This legal issue is one of the starker, recent examples of the problems inherent in creating equitable laws, especially where new technologies meet dated, but well-intentioned and certainly reasonable, legal principles. On the one hand, an author has every right to profit from his labors, and if he hasn't contracted the right to produce an audiobook to anyone, then no one should be permitted to produce an audiobook of the author's work. On the other hand, the text-to-speech feature is very similar to just having someone read the story aloud to you, like a parent reading a bedtime story to a child, for example.


Nathanael Green said...

My guess is that in the future, authors and publishers will include some provision for this in their original contracts, as it's now known that ebooks can be automatically turned into audiobooks.

Was this an issue when audio recording equipment became widely available? Even before ebooks, anyone could easily record a reading of a printed book and then play it back however they like. (I think there's a group that does just that as a service to the blind.)

Would that be an infringement where traditional publishing is concerned?

Is it a question of whether a purchase implies a specific use? Because I have tons of books that aren't being read as intended, but instead are keeping my furniture from floating away.

Brian O'Rourke said...


I'd probably answer this question differently if I had a few bestsellers to my name, but this doesn't bother me much. (Yet.) I doubt the Kindle is able to read a story as well a paid narrator in a more traditional audiobook.

I was talking about the trend of art with none other than Nick Hughes (thanks for the article, Nick!) last night. We both agreed that authors and musicians would, if they wanted to make it and sustain their success, have to give away increasingly more materials for free. As it stands for yours truly right now, I'm willing to give this sort of thing away and go quietly.

Based upon that article, it seems this hasn't become a big deal until now. Pre-e-reader technology wasn't able to capture as large an audio market as the Kindle seems capable of doing, so there wasn't enough money in it for the publishers to concern themselves with.

adrian mckinty said...


Kindle reads it only in that robot Stephen Hawking voice. Dont know how you want stand that for a whole book.

The whole intellectual copyright thing goes too far at times. Some best seller types are even opposed to libraries for this very reason - cheap bastards.

Brian O'Rourke said...

A -

Sounds like the Kindle Read to Me feature would only work well for A Brief History of Time. Perhaps I'd even understand that book better if Mr. Hawking were reading it to me.

That's crazy that some best seller types are opposed to libraries. You'd think after making all that nice bank they wouldn't care about someone checking their books out of a library.

We should identify these writers and organize a massive campaign to only read them through libraries.

Anonymous said...

With Kindle, how good is the voice quality? I had a text-to-voice software that could read stories, but it was so tone deaf we spent most of the time making fun of how it mispronounced everything.

-- Shawn

Brian O'Rourke said...


First, thanks for stopping by.

From what Adrian is telling me, the Kindle reads like Stephen Hawking. So, good or bad, depending upon whether you enjoy a voice similar to his or not I guess :)

We haven't talked in a while. What have you been working on?

BTW, we really wanted to bring you on Four Stories, but we ran into some technical issues and haven't done much with the podcast in a long time.