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Book publishers object to Kindle's text-to-voice feature

Is it lawful for a computer to read text? And if not, does that mean moms violate copyright law when reading to their children?

Update at 5:30 p.m. PST: Quotes added from copyright advocate Ben Sheffner.

Was your mother a lawbreaker when she read you The Little Prince or Green Eggs and Ham?

That's the question raised Tuesday by the Authors Guild, an advocacy group for writers. Paul Aitken, the group's executive director objects to the text-to-speech feature on Amazon's Kindle 2 digital-book reader. Aitken told The Wall Street Journal: "They don't have the right to read a book out loud. That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law."

Wow. If a computer can't lawfully read a book out loud, do human beings have the right? Amazon and Aitken could not be reached for comment.

Well, mothers of America, never fear. You most certainly do have the right to privately perform copyright work, says Ben Sheffner, a copyright attorney. Sheffner, a well-known copyright advocate, says the issue of whether Amazon's Kindle infringes on intellectual property is not as cut and dry.

Amazon's technology enables a computer voice to read text aloud to owners of the Kindle 2, the next-gen version of reader.

Sheffner said it's unclear whether the text-to-speech feature could be considered a public performance. Under copyright law, if someone profits from, say, a public reading of a copyright work without authorization, they are breaking the law. Someone could argue, said Sheffner, that the Kindle's speech feature is a public performance because it enables scores of people to receive audio of a book. Sheffner added that the counter argument would be that the feature is only enabling lots of different private--and therefore legal--performances.

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School, said he doesn't see how the speech feature violates copyright law if no recorded copy of the book is created. Book publishers often license audio books separately than the text versions.

"The only right really that might be implicated is the so-called public performance," Zittrain said. "But what I want the thing to do is to read to me in the car. I don't see a copy being made so I don't see how this can be Amazon's problem."

The debate could be academic. If the book publishers don't like the feature, they can refuse to renew their licenses with Amazon in the future. And my colleague Ina Fried raised another point. Why would Kindle owners choose a computer voice when they can hear a recording of the author or a professional actor reading the book?