Amazon's Kindle in copyright kerfuffle

February 12, 2009 // 10:08 a.m.

Tags: #amazon #ebook #electronic-book #kindle #kindle-2 #paul-aitken #reader #speech-synthesis #text-to-speech

In what must surely rank as one of the most bizarre – and pathetic – applications of copyright law ever, Amazon has found itself in hot water over the text-to-speech functionality of its new Kindle ebook reader.

As reported over on CNet yesterday, copyright holders are kicking up a stink about the newly introduced speech synthesis capability added to the second-generation Kindle ebook reader from Amazon. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, the executive director of the Authors Guild, Paul Aitken, made the claim that by reading the book out loud Amazon was claiming “an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.

Under the agreement Amazon has with publishers, it is given the right to produce electronic copies of books for sale to individuals for private use. The publishers often reserve the right to produce derivative works to be marketed separately, such as an audio book version of a popular work. These works are also not usually licensed for public performance – which is an entirely separate right, and one which Aitken is trying to claim the Kindle violates.

Despite this, parents often read copies of books to their children – an act which is encouraged by parenting guides. The introduction of text-to-speech capabilities into the Kindle is hardly designed as a realistic substitute for public performance – you'd feel a bit of a fool stood in front of a packed auditorium holding a Kindle and all listening to a Dalek-alike stumbling through the latest Stephen King – but rather an extension of the already-held right to enjoy a purchased book however you want in private.

Rather than punish Amazon for the introduction of the feature, as Aitken appears to be trying to do, the company should be lauded for introducing a useful accessibility feature for visually impaired readers – not to mention a useful tool for anyone who likes something a little more literary when they're in the car.

Despite Aitken's outbursts, the power rests in the hands of the publishers: it is they who will decide, or not, to renew their digital distribution agreements with Amazon.

Do you believe that the text-to-speech capability of the Kindle represents a public performance – and is something that Amazon should be paying publishers for – or is Aitken barking up the wrong tree? Share your thoughts over in the forums.
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