Amazon retreats on Kindle's text-to-speech issue

Retailer denies the feature violates any copyright but says publishers will decide whether to enable text-to-speech function for their books.

Apparently, Amazon won't fight the publishing industry on the issue of whether the Kindle 2's text-to-speech function violates copyright.

The retailer, which makes the popular Kindle electronic-book reader, announced late Friday that the company is modifying systems to allow authors and publishers to decide whether to enable Kindle's text-to-speech function on a per-title basis.

Amazon began its press release with tough talk. "Kindle 2's experimental text-to-speech feature is legal," Amazon wrote. "No copy is made, no derivative work is created, and no performance is being given."

But then the company says: "We strongly believe many rights holders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver's seat."

There is no mistaking what happened here. Amazon caved. For Kindle owners interested in the text-to-speech feature, the device just lost value.

The Authors Guild, a trade group representing 9,000 authors, began criticizing Amazon shortly after the Kindle 2 debuted earlier this month. The guild's president, Paul Aiken, told CNET this week that Amazon was taking a hard-line position in discussions between the guild and the company. He also said there was a possibility that the guild could sue over the issue.

"Anytime you have a new means of accessing content," Aiken said, "there's always some sort of aggregator that wants to control it and keep the value for themselves."

Fred von Lohmann, senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocate group for the rights of Web users and technology companies, said he was grateful that Amazon went out of its way to make the point that the company didn't believe text-to-speech technology violated copyright.

"Nevertheless, Amazon decided to allow copyright owners to make the decisions themselves whether to use the feature," von Lohmann said. "They are entitled to do that. The issue of text-to-speech will have to wait for another innovator."

One point that von Lohmann noted was that there are plenty of PCs that offer text-to-speech, and the Authors Guild hasn't objected to those. "Maybe Apple should be looking over their shoulder," he said.

It's easy to understand why Amazon may have back-pedaled. Even the staunchest supporters of text-to-speech say that it won't replace audio books any time soon. Computers can sound like humans but they can't insert emphasis or offer much of a dramatic rendering because they don't yet understand what they're reading--and likely won't for a very long time, say the experts.

 

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