One of the most interesting features of the Kindle 2, Amazon’s new version of its overpriced eBook reader, is its text-to-speech option for content. This means your Kindle can read aloud any book you buy on the device — something which the Author’s Guild didn’t look too kindly on. You see, its authors’ hold special rights for the recordings of audiobooks based on their works. Of course, this feature isn’t the same thing an audiobook, but that didn’t stop Amazon from backing down today.
Amazon will now let authors choose on a title-by-title basis if the text-to-speech functionality will be enabled. It announced this move in a release that starts with the sentence: “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.” While it stands to reason that this is legal (after all, you have this same text-to-speech on any computer), Amazon clearly didn’t want to upset the group that provides it with all that content.
Contrast this with the way Apple is said to negotiate with the music industry — that is, its way or the highway. Though, to be fair, it finally did cave into the industry’s demand for a three-tier pricing structure for iTunes, which should go into effect shortly. Of course, the music labels had to use perhaps their last big bargaining chip to get that: DRM-free music.
Amazon also says that given the choice, many publishers will choose to leave the text-to-speech option turned on, saying “we strongly believe many rights-holders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver’s seat.”
I know that if I were an author I’d be fine with that feature. Having heard it in action, I can’t imagine anyone is going to listen to an entire book with that odd computer voice — it’s like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey minus pronunciation skills, reading to you. Instead, readers are likely to use this feature to supplement their reading experience. For example, if they have to put a Kindle down for a short period of time. Or, it’s obviously also very useful for disabled users of the Kindle. I’m not going to suggest that the Author’s Guild doesn’t care about them, but I’m not sure they’re putting those users ahead of the fear of lost audiobook sales.