Anyone who has happened upon Amazon.com over the past several months has undoubtedly noticed Amazon’s painstaking efforts to market its new Kindle 2 device to readers-at-large. The Kindle – a hardware device about the size and weight of an average book – allows users to directly download e-books (up to 1500 at a time) and read the titles on its “electronic paper” display. Of all of the Kindle 2's new features, the most heavily promoted is its ability to “read” books aloud to the user by relying on text-to-speech software.
However, this new feature has come under attack by the Author’s Guild which contends that a purchaser of an "e-book" buys only the right to read the book -- not the right to have the book read out loud. In fact, the concern that this feature will cannibalize the market for audio-books was apparently big enough to incite the President of the Author's Guild to author a New York Times opinion column on the issue. As noted in his article, technology has advanced to a point where the “computerized voices” on text-to-speech software are “almost indistinguishable from human ones”; with some of these programs going so far as to include an occasional ‘um,’ ‘er’, sigh and -- even -- coughs, in order to accurately simulate a human reader. Thus, the threat posed to audiobooks by text-to-speech software is greater than would have been possible in the past.
However, much to the disappointment of those interested in a definitive legal opinion on this dispute (and, one would imagine, the parties' attorneys) Amazon has decided to avoid the expense of litigation and yield to these objections. Specifically, Amazon has announced that it will allow copyright holders to decide whether or not they wish to enable the read-aloud Kindle feature on a title-by-title basis. Of course, the number authors that ultimately exercise this option will likely shrink if it turns out that consumers are more inclined to purchase a title that includes the read-aloud feature.
An article on this dispute is available here.