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Amazon lets publishers disable Kindle 2's read-aloud feature

February 27, 2009 |  5:17 pm
Kindle 2
Is this little device's ability to read books aloud strangling the authors of America? Credit: jblyberg via Flickr.

Amazon.com reversed course today on the text-to-speech function of its Kindle 2 e-book reader. The e-commerce giant said publishers and authors can decide on a title-by-title basis if they want to disable the feature that reads books aloud in a robotic voice.

But, in the equivalent of sticking its tongue out at a little kid just before giving him back his candy, Amazon began its press release by saying critics who argue that the text-to-speech function violates copyright law are plain wrong:

"Kindle 2's experimental text-to-speech feature is legal: no copy is made, no derivative work is created, and no performance is being given," the company said. "Nevertheless, we strongly believe many rightsholders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver's seat."

The Kindle 2, which shipped this week, is a faster and smaller version of the popular digital book reader. Digital sales are growing fast but still generate less than 1% of the $25-billion U.S. book publishing market.

The text-to-speech function appeared to catch the industry off guard. The Authors Guild objected, saying that publishers don't have the contractual rights to ...

... sell e-books on a device that essentially turns them into audio books. President Roy Blount Jr., well-known for his role on the NPR quiz show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," contributed an op-ed column in the New York Times denouncing the function.

"They created a hybrid product," Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, said when reached by phone late Friday. "It was being used in a way they had not been given permission for."

Aiken wasn't ready to break out the champagne yet about Amazon's concession. "We have to see exactly how it's implemented," he said.

Amazon said in the release that it had already begun to alter its systems to give publishers and authors the choice to disable the text-to-speech function, and that they could decide for themselves whether it was in their commercial interests to leave it enabled. "We believe many will decide that it is," the company said.

Ben Sheffner, a Los Angeles copyright attorney and author of the blog Copyrights & Campaigns, said Amazon probably reversed course to maintain a good relationship with authors, not because of legal concerns. He says the text-to-speech function shouldn't be considered a performance, and reading it aloud isn't equivalent to selling a separate audio book, so Amazon probably wouldn't need different rights to sell an e-book with this function enabled. But book contracts can differ dramatically, he said, so there's no knowing for sure.

"The copyright claims were speculative at best," he said. "This was about relationships."

And everybody knows that the best way to fix relationships is to give candy, even if begrudgingly. 

-- Alana Semuels

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