Authors Guild: Contracts forced Amazon to flip on Kindle

Guild's director said big book publishers were pressuring Amazon to make changes to Kindle 2's text-to-speech feature. Publishers' contracts also prompted retailer to relent.

Update 2:49 p.m. PST: to include comment from Amazon.

Paul Aiken and the Authors Guild aren't gloating.

The executive director of the 9,000-member guild isn't taking all or even most of the credit for Amazon's abrupt about-face on Friday. The retailer announced that it would allow publishers to disable the Kindle 2's text-to-speech feature on any titles of their choosing.

Kindle speech

He says while Authors Guild managers were "vocal" with their objections to the Kindle's speech technology, including publishing an op-ed piece in The New York Times, much more powerful entities were leaning on Amazon to make changes: large book publishers.

There was one more reason Amazon was prompted to make changes, according to Aiken.

"Amazon realized the magnitude of the contractual problem," Aiken said Monday morning. "Many of the author's publishing contracts give publishers the right to publish e-books, but only without enhancing audio. A reasonable reading of those contracts shows that publishers didn't have the authority to sell e-books for use in a Kindle device with audio enhancement."

"What you have to keep an eye on is that text-to-speech may be more valuable in the mobile market. If screens on many of these devices are too small for a good reading experience, text-to-speech may be an important application."
--Paul Aiken, Authors Guild executive director

An Amazon spokesman denied being pushed into Friday's decision. As for whether contractual issues played a part, the spokesman repeated what the company said Friday: "Kindle 2's experimental text-to-speech feature is legal."

Aiken began criticizing Amazon soon after the Kindle 2's debut last month. He argued that the retailer was violating the author's copyright and was cutting them out of a potentially new and lucrative market.

On Friday, Amazon announced it would reconfigure the Kindle 2's systems to allow publishers to disable the text-to-speech function for titles of their choosing. However, the retailer made it clear in the announcement that it believed text-to-speech did not violate copyright.

The controversy has irked some Kindle owners, as well as people both for and against strong copyright laws.

Many tech fans interpret the complaints of the Authors Guild as the latest attempt by creators to control information. Aiken and copyright advocates say it's the responsibility of the guild and authors to ensure they get a fair share of revenue they help produce.

"We're relieved by Amazon's decision," Aiken said. "It's hard to get paid for your content online for digital uses. We have to get things right in these emerging markets. There has to be reasonable ways for authors and creators to get compensated.

"Amazon's move is a good first step," Aiken continued. "We got a ways to go. We believe that text-to-speech should be available but this isn't just about the Kindle. What you have to keep an eye on is that text-to-speech may be more valuable in the mobile market. If screens on many of these devices are too small for a good reading experience, text-to-speech may be an important application. We just want to make sure authors are fairly compensated."

Aiken said perhaps in the future, text-to-speech will be bundled with audio books. He suggested someone could buy an audio book and purchase text-to-speech for say, an extra $1.75.

The question I had for Aiken was how the clause about limiting the rights for audio enhancement was inserted into some agreements?

He said one major publisher in particular had the foresight to include the clause into contracts with book distributors. Aiken declined to name the publisher.

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