whose e book is this anyway

In last week's column I groused a little about the current state of electronic book (e-book) publishing and e-book reading machines. I did not then have time to address a related story that appeared more or less at the same time - the published comment by

In last week’s column I groused a little about the current state of electronic book (e-book) publishing and e-book reading machines.

I did not then have time to address a related story that appeared more or less at the same time – the published comment by the executive director of the United States Authors Guild, stating that a feature of Amazon’s new Kindle 2 e-book reader constituted a violation of copyright law.

The feature in question was the Kindle’s newly added text-to-speech robotic reading capability.

The idea behind the added feature is that it allows you to read your e-book in the conventional way, and also listen to it as you hike in the park, or drive your car to work.

Paul Aiken, the guild’s executive director, contends that this added functionality constitutes a violation of publisher’s rights to extra payment for “derivative work” based on their books.

In other words, he is saying that a robotic reading amounts to a performance of the text in question – like a dramatic reading on a recording or on a stage – and that the author and publisher of that text should therefore be entitled to allow or disallow such a performance, and to financial remuneration if they decide to allow it.

Most legal experts who have commented on this idea have dismissed it out of hand.

They point out that it is unreasonable to call a robotic reading of an electronic text a public performance – a “derivative performance”- of that text.

It differs little from reading the text aloud to yourself, or having the text read aloud to you by somebody else.

Your purchase of an e-book entitles you to access to those words on paper, however you choose to achieve that access.

The technology gurus have been similarly dismissive.

They are quick to point out that text-to-speech software has been around for a very long time.

Apple’s MacInTalk software, for instance, became part of its basic operating system in 1984.

That program evolved into the PlainTalk in the ‘90s, and Apple currently runs a further evolution – called VoiceOver – on its current operation system, OS X.

Windows computers also have a long history of after-market text-to-speech synthesizers, though none so tightly integrated into the operating system as Mac’s.

Both Mac and Windows computers have included that text to speech functionality primarily for the benefit of sight-impaired and dyslexic users.

It is what is known as an “assistive technology,” and is entitled to special consideration when it comes to issues of copyright protection.

Given all this, it appears that singling out Amazon’s very minority-share Kindle 2 device for accusations of copyright violation is both legally naïve and technologically uninformed.

But a quick check on the background of this Paul Aiken fellow (he is easily found at linkedin.com) reveals that he is anything but an inexperienced, over-eager puppy.

He is a graduate of the Cornell Law School, and has been executive director of the American Authors Guild for sixteen years.

So why would this very educated, long-experienced copyright advocate be making such a weak and selective case against Amazon?

The answer, I think, is that the manoeuvre is more tactical than practical, at this time.

Kindle or no Kindle, Amazon is not likely to do anything that is going to undercut its lucrative trade in professional-performance audiobooks.

As the Author’s Guild website itself admits, “Audiobooks surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2007; e-book sales are just a small fraction of that.”

(In fact, it is much less than a small fraction: the unofficial estimate is that only about one per cent of Amazon’s yearly revenues comes from the e-book market.)

The guild also admits that the performance quality of Amazon’s robotic reader is not much of a threat to that market, saying it is “best described as serviceable.”

It seems apparent, then, that Aiken and the Authors Guild were playing this news release with a long-term strategy in mind – and a strategy that looks sadly similar to the DRM (digital rights management) approach taken in the past by the record and movie companies.

They are advocating that Amazon should be compelled in future to lock down all kinds of possible uses of its e-books unless those uses have been expressly approved and paid for.

They contend that “publishers certainly could contractually prohibit Amazon from adding audio functionality to its e-books without authorization, and Amazon could comply by adding a software tag that would prohibit its machine from creating an audio version of a book unless Amazon has acquired the appropriate rights.”

Getting this kind of concession from a big player like Amazon, this early in the game, while the e-book market is still very much in its infancy, would be a major coup.

And, since Amazon obviously has its eye on much bigger, more lucrative market areas, it might just fall for the ploy.

The guild’s position may not be a good idea – in fact, I think it is appallingly ill-advised and, what is worse, unethical – but it is not nearly as stupid as the lawyers and technology experts have made it sound.

Bend the twig, you shape the tree to come.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.