Technology has yet to catch up with the futuristic world Stanley Kubrick envisioned four decades ago in "2001: A Space Odyssey." For example, consider HAL 9000, the computer onboard the spacecraft headed for Jupiter. It spoke with a voice that sounded ... human. (Of course, its voice was was a human's -- HAL's lines were spoken by a Canadian actor, Douglas Rain.) Today's computers, on the other hand, continue to render speech in a relatively soulless and arrhythmic way that reflects the current limits of artificial intelligence.
Leaders of the Authors Guild evidently think the Kindle 2, the new version of Amazon's e-book reader, is closer to HAL than it really is -- both in speech capabilities and malevolence. Unlike its predecessor, the Kindle 2 can read aloud the books, newspapers and other material downloaded by its owners. The guild warned its members that Amazon may be undermining the billion-dollar market for audio books, and urged them not to sign new e-book deals until their publishers persuaded Amazon to pay for the "audio rights." Later, its president, Roy Blount Jr., wrote an opinion piece arguing that there wasn't that much of a sonic difference between Kindle 2's electronic intonation and an audio book recorded by its author.
The pressure was enough to prompt a capitulation from Amazon, which agreed to turn off the text-to-speech capability unless the author and publisher of a title granted permission. It was an unfortunate concession, because the guild and Blount were wrong on all counts. Most fundamentally, there is no such thing as "audio rights" in copyright law. Authors and publishers control the rights to create derivative works, such as audio books, but such works need to be "original works of authorship" preserved in a permanent form. The sounds intoned by the Kindle 2 (or any other text-to-speech program) are neither original nor permanent. Copyright holders also control the rights to performances of their works, but only when they're done in public. That's why, regardless of what publishers might claim in their e-book license agreements, you and your gadgets have the right to read e-books aloud to yourself and your family. And as reviews of the Kindle 2 note, the device's text-to-speech feature is best suited for brief excerpts, not entire works.
Innovators such as Amazon are and should be free to create devices that help consumers exploit all of the rights they obtain when they purchase books and other copyrighted material. And by the way, Authors Guild: Amazon sells e-books. The Kindle makes those products more appealing to consumers, which makes them more valuable to authors and publishers. If authors hope to compete in the digital era, they need the e-book market to succeed. Stripping features from the Kindle 2 won't help.