Kindle Text-to-speech Issue Is a Lot of Talk

While the newly updated iteration of the Kindle, Amazon's e-book reader, has impressed many, there's at least one group that's taken issue with the device: the Authors Guild. The association, which is a professional organization for writers, has objected to the fact that the Kindle 2 features text-to-speech functionality that can read books aloud.

The Guild's executive director, Paul Aiken, told the Wall Street Journal that the capability violated authors' copyrights, as Amazon doesn't own the rights for audio recordings. The legality of this issue is up in the air--recording rights, such as those for audiobooks, are often sold separately from the text itself,but that raises the question of whether or not text-to-speech synthesis constitutes an audio recording.

Part of this is the Guild playing the long game: right now the quality of text-to-speech isn't a replacement for a professional recording read by an actual narrator, but the Guild clearly doesn't want to be in a position where they're betting against technological innovation. If it cedes this debate now, it's going to have a harder time arguing against it in ten years when text-to-speech is a lot better (compare today's text synthesis engines to those of ten or twenty years ago to see how far we've already come).

[Think text-to-speech is already good enough that it'll replace audiobooks? I've uploaded a recording of this article read by me and one read by OS X's Alex so you can compare for yourself.]

But setting the legal issues aside for the moment, it seems to me that while the Authors Guild is playing for the long term, in the short term it's a hair's breadth away from shooting itself in the foot. The Kindle is the most influential technological device in the e-book market and it has the potential to do for text what the iPod did for music. Right now both the e-book and audiobook markets are relatively small compared, say, to online music. There's also probably a decent amount of overlap between the two markets, as they share the same underlying demographic of people that still read--itself an increasingly small minority of the general public.

Publishing companies--and through them, authors--are being hit hard by the economy; they're also starting to feel the same crunch that the music and movie industries have run into in this increasingly digital world. Adaptation is needed if the industry is going to survive in this day and age. 

I'm no businessman, much less a lawyer, but I can see a couple of potential solutions. Amazon already owns the largest audiobook service on the Web in Audible, and it allows you to load and play back audiobooks from the service on the device. It'd be great if users could purchase and download audiobooks directly from the Kindle, but according to the company, the file sizes are too big to be downloaded over the device's network connection, so they have to be loaded from a PC.

But text-to-speech should still be available as an alternative. Why? Well, for a few reasons: firstly, in the short term, the vast majority of audiobook devotees are unlikely to ditch them for the emotionless text-to-speech of a computer. Secondly, I'd wager that enough people will be frustrated with the lackluster quality of text-to-speech that they'll shell out for the real deal. Finally, not every book gets turned into an audiobook in the first place, so why not let people listen to a book if it's something that wasn't going to be recorded anyway? Better yet, if the rights holders can negotiate a deal with Amazon to figure out which books are being read aloud the most, it can potentially take advantage of that to produce audiobook versions of titles that might otherwise not have merited the treatment.

I understand the need--both financial and psychological--for publishing companies and authors to make money off audio rights, but they need to learn from the lessons of the movie and music industries and realize that they stifle technological innovation at their own peril. Playing the long game is all well and good, but if they ignore adapting in the short term, there may not be much of a long term left. 

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