When it comes to the Kindle, authors are focused on the wrong risk

My latest Guardian column, "Authors have lost the plot in Kindle battle," argues that the Authors' Guild is nuts to focus on the text-to-speech feature, and should really be paying attention to the fact that it's apparently possible to remotely disable features in the ebook reader.
Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong, but the important thing is, we don't need new theories about copyright law to test the proposition. The existing, totally non-controversial aspect of copyright law that says, "Amazon can't publish and sell my book without my permission" covers the territory nicely.

But while we were all running our mouths about the plausibility of the singularity emerging from Amazon's text-to-speech R&D, a much juicier issue was escaping our notice: it is technically possible for Amazon to switch off the text-to-speech feature for some or all books.

That's a hell of a thing, isn't it? Now that Amazon has agreed with the Authors Guild that text-to-speech will only be switched on for authors who sign a contract permitting it, we should all be goggling in amazement at the idea that this can be accomplished.

Authors have lost the plot in Kindle battle


  1. im feeling a little too fresh for a topic that has so many different sides —-

    so im gonna zero in on the fact that if it’s contractual – and the artist signs it – what is the issue really –

    the problem is with how books are promoted/published/distributed – whenever mass-mainstream media corporations become involved (and thats not always true) — i guess im gonna get into it anyway and sound like a bumbling asshole cuz i didnt want to — u write to make money – so u can live and write more – u need distributors to do this – (i kno i sound like an idiot) electronic media is a new marketplace

    a new “barnes and noble” if you will — and if they cant figure out how to stop shoplifting completely – they’ll figure out a way to write-off or “hand-off” the losses

    greed builds on fear builds on this snatch grab for profit rights

    so in this whole bs cyber-media copyright war that will never end — all i want to say is

    what about the blind people!!!!!!

  2. … and this is why people who want all the dead trees converted to copied electrons will continue to use the equivalent of anime fansubs!

    As bedridden, I want a good e-text reader. E-paper seems out of reach, so I will settle for DS + flashcart. Of course, this necessitates open standards, not proprietary DRM.

    Allow me to pay a buck or two maybe, lock me into $500 + retail book prices, not only can I not afford it, but my choices devolve to no text or pirate text.

    If I own the book, stored, is that OK? What if I, um, “misplaced” it? (aka, had it but might have been lost in the move?)

    What if I have perfect memory, and recite it verbatim?

  3. The Internet and the digital revolution started off as something that really freed the human race, and yet now it turns to enslave us even more.

    I hate sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but we’re moving to a life-system whereby we own *nothing* and merely work in order to afford to eat, and to license the things we need or want.

    What happened to *owning* your own home? Your car? The book or CD on your shelf?

    Heck, what happened even to owning your money? What is that $100 bill you’re holding? A piece of paper backed by… nothing, all the while the printing presses are red hot from the overtime. Your investments and savings are just numbers in a database.

  4. digilante – makes u ask the question –

    what really is mine?

    i wont go through the numbers – but what it comes down to is this (i think)

    if u made it – its urs –
    if u grew it – its urs –
    if the emotions u felt while u were fucking it were real – its urs (the emotions i mean, not the female)

    i really cant find justification for any other category (and i cant decide if that is a bad thing or if its SIMPLY WONDERFUL)

  5. Dedalus: “if u grew it – its urs – ”

    Hehe… but you can’t have your dope, and smoke it! Vot iz needed iz a rewolushin :-)

    Thank god I live 2 hours’ high-speed drive from Holland. Bless them fine people of them nether-lands. The last outpost of sanity.

  6. well i envy u for that – but i dont use any illegal drugs due to certain circumstances involving my stay here in the good ole USA — i was thinking about foods u grew… but goddamn that stuff should be legal *he says as he puffs a clove cigarette*

  7. There’s one thing everybody can do about DRM and closed OS’s like Kindle or iPhone. If you can’t own it, you don’t buy it. Keeping your money in your pocket isn’t hard to do.

  8. Well duh. If your device contains DRM, you are not in control of it.
    On similar note; future of censorship isn’t bonfires, it is a faceless drone somewhere pushing a button.

  9. this question is dear to my heart

    which is more harmful to humanity – the torching of the library of alexandria – or the systematic suppression of emerging ideas –

    and how screwed up is it that i have to ask that question? (please tell me if im off base)

  10. OMG i have to go to sleep – i have class in a few hours —- thanks to whoever is monitoring for putting up with me – and thanks to anyone that touched me or i got to touch tonight (i like touching) ……… how lame is it that i feel compelled to say goodnight to a mostly anonymous blog – aww –

  11. Leaving aside the issue of remote hardware disabling (which I think really more of a consumer rights issue than an author issue) I think you’re right to say that the Authors Guild has lost the plot. Their attempts to stifle the text-to-speech function of the Kindle actually drives more people to piracy – following the same path that music companies followed when MP3 players were introduced.

    Y’see, the Kindle can do text-to-speech on the device itself, with no need for any sort of support or authorization from Amazon. That means that only files that are specifically disabled when they are delivered are restricted. Any unprotected file that the user uploads directly to their Kindle has no restrictions. So if people want to use their TTS function, they’ll just go get their books from via torrent rather than through the Amazon store.

    As a Kindle owner, I want to purchase legitimate books from the author and publishing companies that represent them. I think it’s the best way to support good writing. But if the playback is restricted by the copyright holder over what I think is a very clear case of overreaching copyright abuse, I’m just going to get my books elsewhere. That hurts Amazon, it hurts the progression of the technology, and it hurts authors. The Guild should recognize that and back down on this issue.

    NOTE: I think it’s important to distinguish the Authors Guild from the authors. We need to be careful about language, and headlines like that are misleading. It’s not authors who are doing anything, it’s the Authors Guild that claims to represent them that objects to TTS. But the Authors Guild, as it has been pointed out on several occasions, has a membership under 10,000 and it includes authors, agents, and attorneys. Authors who are members who object to this ridiculous policy should withdraw from membership. Agents who object should encourage the authors they represent to withdraw. Attorneys – well, I doubt they’ll do anything, but it would be nice if a few of them actually admitted that this case had no legal standing and withdrew as well.

  12. @Digilante: Who cares about ownership? That’s a capitalist thing we’ve been hooked into for far too long. It doesn’t, and never really, made sense anyway. Instead, it’s value that counts in the long run. If you can determine value, and communicate that top others, then you’re golden.

  13. When I started shopping for an e-reader a couple of months ago, my first choice was a Kindle. At least it was until I looked closely at the fine print. I’m not interested in anything that can be controlled remotely or disabled by its manufacturer. The strangest part of the whole experience is that I ended up with a Sony PRS-700. I don’t trust Sony (root kit, anyone?) any more than I do Amazon, but what won me over is that it has no wireless capability and works just fine without using Sony’s software by using only SD cards. The built-in light is a bonus. The end result is that I have a reader that I have control of and that isn’t doing anything sneaky behind my back.

  14. I could well be wrong, and I suppose we’ll find out soon enough, but I think it’s highly unlikely that the feature will be remotely disabled on already purchased ebooks. For that matter, I doubt it will be disabled on the vast, vast majority of future .AZW files.

    What will happen is this: the Guild and most of its members will be content with contractual acknowledgment of (what is from their POV) a particular right sold. Amazon will continue to sell the same books as before, which is to the advantage of both the company, the authors, and Amazon customers. Consumers will continue to receive the exact same (DRM-laced!) product.

    Isn’t this a better resolution than Cory’s proposed scenario, where Amazon and authors both lose ebook sales and Kindle customers have less variety? Furthermore, say Amazon had “recalled” books at authors’ request — is that any less likely to raise questions of remote deactivation? (To be clear, I think it’s deeply unlikely in any case.)

    I understand — though gently disagree with — Cory’s argument that a sort of abstract, intellectual con has been perpetrated, Setting a Dangerous Precedent, but it seems to me that the real-world fallout is either nil or vaguely positive.

    Again, if I’m wrong, I’ll gladly eat my words.

  15. @Gilgongo – Very good point! I guess I see value in terms of ownership – i.e. I can play the CD I own as often as I want, where I want, I can rip it and listen to it in different ways, and so on. The key here is nobody can, yet, come and stop me from using it in those ways. I see zero value in things that can be controlled by some third party, or depend on some specific or unique external resource… We’ve seen too many times how this value can disappear instantly.

  16. If the kindle had a flexible non-glass display I would already own one. But only once there was an alternate firmware/OS like was done with OpenZaurus but something that would keep the whispernet connection working and falsely responding and confirming remote kill or disable-feature commands like the stock OS while giving me complete freedom to use it as I like.

    I believe it runs a Linux OS so at least the binary drivers are probably out there for the hardware.

    My big worry is with this weird economy depression/recession someone in the whispernet payment chain will default and the prepaid lifetime “Hitchhikers Guide” free Wikipedia deal will be abrogated.

    At least gen-1 units had a SD card slot even if the EDO Whispernet went down you could easily load books.

  17. “…Now that Amazon has agreed with the Authors Guild that text-to-speech will only be switched on for authors who sign a contract permitting it, we should all be goggling in amazement at the idea that this can be accomplished…”

    No, we should be deeply saddened and offended that a device we [might] purchase can be arbitrarily and retroactively crippled.

    Would you also think it cool if some of the songs you already bought for your iPod one day would only play in mono?

  18. No, we should be deeply saddened and offended …

    Oh, come now. The fact that some files may not make full use of a piece of luxury hardware does not call for “deep sadness” and outrage. And so far it hasn’t been retroactively crippled.

    Would you also think it cool if some of the songs you already bought for your iPod one day would only play in mono?

    Again, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that .AZW files will be remotely altered. It’s not even clear that Amazon has the capability. This is pure and unsubstantiated speculation on Cory’s part. Which is fine, and I certainly agree that such a practice would be objectionable, but let’s not confuse speculation with facts on the ground.

  19. I picked up a Gateway M1200 tablet PC for cheap to use for reading and writing. It’s a little bulkier than a Kindle, the battery life is meh, and it doesn’t have the (seriously very cool) e-paper.

    OTOH, it has color, wireless, optional keyboard, reads any format you can imagine, _and_ includes TTS. So unless the Author’s Guild wants to start waging war against all of technology in general, I’m really not sure what they’ve accomplished here.

  20. Yeah, right. DRM is the answer. Never will just plain folks consider the slippery slope of hacking their Kindle or for free downloading the clean version of choice reads.

  21. I commented on this article on TeleRead.


    Basically, what Cory’s talking about is a subset of the fact that, when you buy any DRM’d e-book, the company that owns the DRM can potentially do bad things to you years after you make your purchase.

    Look at all the people who invested heavily in DRM’d MobiPocket books when they had a Palm PDA, and now find they can’t read their library on their new iPhone (or Maemo tablet, or Android device, or Palm Pre, or…) because there’s no official MobiPocket reader for those devices (and apparently no hope of ever getting them, since it’s hard to see Amazon ever allowing its subsidiary to do anything that will further increase competition to its Kindle).

    And what happens if Amazon decides to discontinue licensing the MobiPocket DRM format to its competitors? Every DRM’d MobiPocket book goes away. That could be a major blow to the e-book stores that rely heavily on it—and the readers who’ve bought heavily into e-books that they will no longer be able to re-lock to new devices.

    This is a serious danger, and it’s disappointing it’s not getting more media attention. Cory, if you’re reading this, please consider looking into the Mobi(InAmazon’s)Pocket situation and making it the focus of a future column.

  22. I think the biggest threat is actually the ease of publication. For established authors who are given priority/preference by publishers, their success is somewhat self-fulfilling. But Amazon lets pretty much anyone publish on the Kindle. It doesn’t take much to publish in electronic format.

    I like competition, but it’s probably threatening to established authors and their publishing companies.

  23. i hate to keep being like this —–

    but most of you are missing the BIGGER PICTURE

    thats all i ever have to say really…

    eventually i will tire of saying it – and you all will be doomed

  24. This brings up an interesting question. If one were to use kindle text to speech to read a book into another device with a speech to text software, would a temporal paradox appear and suck us all into the black depths of an alternate reality? Screw, it.. Wheres my kindle and Dragon naturally speaking CD from 1997?

  25. Cory, when I first followed the TTS issue, and this “compromise” was proposed by Amazon, it was not remote-disabling of the TTS feature, as far I understand. It was instead more like: “author, you have the right to declare that a TTS_flag=DISABLE on the ebook” and possibly that “you can let us sell a TTS_flag=ALLOW ebook for more $$”.

    Whether the remote-disabling of the TTS feature is possible… probably, with their push-updates via the Kindle whispernet.

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