Authors´ Guild vs. reality: Kindles and read-aloud

In yesterday's New York Times, Author's Guild president Roy Blount Jr. rails against the Kindle's text-to-speech feature, opining that it infringes copyright because it provides a "derivative work" by creating audio editions of your textfiles. Blount says that eventually, text-to-speech will be so darned perfect, the audiobook market will be destroyed by it, so he aims to do something about it right now.

He doesn't actually say what that thing is. Presumably, he'd like Amazon to simply remove the feature. But if you take Blount at his word, then we can only assume the feature will spread to other platforms — does he think that iPhones shouldn't be able to read your email to you as you jog? And if it can read your email, what's to stop it from reading your ebooks? Blount implies that there's a simple solution to his technological problem, but if you truly believe that it should be illegal to ask software to produce audio of copyrighted works, then Blount's lining himself up to fight the entire future of technology that can convert text to speech.

Continuing to take Blount at his word, let's assume that he's right on the copyright question, namely, that:

1. Converting text to speech infringes copyright

2. Providing the software that is capable of committing copyright infringement makes you liable for copyright infringement, too

1. is going to be sticky — the Author's Guild is setting itself up to fight the World Blind Union, phone makers, free software authors, ebook makers, and a whole host of people engaged in teaching computers to talk.

But 2. is really hairy. If Blount believes that making a device capable of infringing copyright is the same as infringing copyright (something refuted by the Supreme Court in Betamax in 1984, the decision that legalized VCRs), then email, web-browsers, computers, photocopiers, cameras, and typewriters are all illegal, too.

Time and again, the Author's Guild has shown itself to be the epitome of a venal special interest group, the kind of grasping, foolish posturers that make the public cynically assume that the profession it represents is a racket, not a trade. This is, after all, the same gang of weirdos who opposed the used book trade going online.

I think there's plenty not to like about the Kindle — the DRM, the proprietary file format, both imposed on authors and publishers even if they don't want it — and about Amazon's real audiobook section, Audible (the DRM — again, imposed on authors and publishers even if they'd prefer not to use it). But if there's one thing Amazon has demonstrated, it's that it plans on selling several bazillion metric tons of audiobooks. They control something like 90 percent of the market. To accuse them of setting out to destroy it just doesn't pass the giggle-test.

One of the most powerful weapons in the publishing industry's arsenal is that it isn't the record or film industry. By and large, publishing is undertaken by bookish people who love books and bookselling and readers and writers. By and large, writers get a decent deal from their publishers — especially relative to recording artists; most writers don't have to sign over their copyrights, don't have the promotion of their books deducted from their royalties, etc. By and large, publishers don't sue tool-makers or accuse readers of being crooks.

Unlike the record and film industries, who seem bent on doing everything in their power to build the moral case for ripping them off — to convince the public that they are a passel of greedy, clueless technophobes who deserve to have their industries killed, if only to protect the 21st century from them — there are very few people who feel this way about publishing and authorship.

Unless, that is, groups like the Authors' Guild continue to make us all out to be cut from the same cloth as media execs like Universal Music's Larry Kenswil, who once bellowed "FAIR USE IS THE LAST REFUGE OF THE SCOUNDREL" at me from a stage at the RSA in London.

Dear Mr Blount: you don't represent me. You don't represent the future of authorship. You and your group are jeopardizing the future of authorship and of society with your petty little grabs and ridiculous posturing. Cut it out before someone gets hurt.

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.

The Kindle Swindle?