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Kindle 2 debate: If a robot reads a book is it an audio book?

The text-to-audio feature can go from zero to annoying pretty quickly. But if the robot improves to the point where it replaces a big name author, then Amazon should license the content for audio.

This was originally posted at ZDNet's Between the Lines.

Roy Blount Jr., president of the Author's Guild, argues that the Kindle 2's ability to read text aloud like one of those automated customer service robots is a substitute for audio books. Blount also adds that Amazon should bepaying audio rights for the Kindle 2's text-to-audio feature.

In The New York Times, Blount writes:

The Kindle 2 is a portable, wireless, paperback-size device onto which people can download a virtual library of digitalized titles. Amazon sells these downloads, and where the books are under copyright, it pays royalties to the authors and publishers.

Serves readers, pays writers: so far, so good. But there's another thing about Kindle 2--its heavily marketed text-to-speech function. Kindle 2 can read books aloud. And Kindle 2 is not paying anyone for audio rights.

True, you can already get software that will read aloud whatever is on your computer. But Kindle 2 is being sold specifically as a new, improved, multimedia version of books--every title is an e-book and an audio book rolled into one. And whereas e-books have yet to win mainstream enthusiasm, audio books are a billion-dollar market, and growing. Audio rights are not generally packaged with e-book rights. They are more valuable than e-book rights. Income from audio books helps not inconsiderably to keep authors, and publishers, afloat.

I listened to the Kindle 2 read a few passages and it's not for extended listening. In fact, the text-to-audio feature can go from zero to annoying pretty quickly. You can have a male or female robot read text to you, but I can't imagine anyone listening a few hours to this software--unless you're the type that call customer service lines just to chat with the automated attendant.

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Instead, Amazon has a nice feature that can be handy if you're multitasking. All of that said Blount is correct to see the threat. If the robot improves to the point where it replicates or replaces a big name author or star reading a passage then Amazon should license the content for audio.

For now though, the quality just isn't there. And to think that the text to audio feature is a replacement for a real human reading a book is just silly. If anything the Author's Guild should be consulting with Amazon in the background to define when a robot becomes an audio book.