In case you missed it, Amazon announced a new version of their Oprah approved Kindle e-book reader. One of the new features announced was the ability to have the device read aloud using text-to-speech. Pretty neat, huh?
You Don’t Have the Right
The Author’s Guild released a statement claiming that Amazon was not within their rights to do any such thing, and calling for Amazon to add a feature where authors/publishers could disable such a feature. Science Fiction author Robert J. Sawyer posted his feelings on the subject on his blog. One of the follow-up comments prompted a follow-up post about what people can and can’t legally do with things they “own”. For example;
You can buy a car, but there are countless regulations governing what you may do with it even though it’s your property. You can’t, for instance, drive it without a license, drive it recklessly, permanently export it to another country, drive it without insurance, allow children to drive it, park your car in my driveway, and so on.
The list got me thinking. ((Which is the only reason I’m mentioning him specifically. I don’t agree with his take, but I’m not trying to attack Mr. Sawyer in any way. You should buy his audiobooks.))
The majority of items on the list can easily be used to do the illegal things mentioned and there is nothing else in place to prevent it. Those illegal acts have consequences to go along with them, and for the most part it seems this is enough.
The exception is pretty much any new technology. When new technology is involved then all consumers are criminals who can’t be trusted and there needs to be functionality crippling technological restrictions added. From where I sit the text-to-speech feature is merely a tool Amazon provides to the end-user. That end-user has to decide to use the tool, and perhaps they’ll use it to do things they don’t have a license to.
If you exclude DRM based restrictions, there’s nothing the Kindle 2 does that I can’t do with an electronic text and a desktop computer.
Death of the Audiobook Industry?
There is obviously fear that this will harm audiobook sales, and the value of audiobook rights. I just don’t see it. I can’t imagine there’s any real worry this would cannibalize the audiobook market.
I’ve played around with text-to-speech, and some of it is surprisingly good, and sure to keep getting better and better. Still I doubt the majority of folks who would happily sit through a text-to-speech reading of a book, would be likely to shell out the money for a commercially produced audiobook.
It’ll be a very long time before a computer simulation can come close to a Scott Brick or a Jonathan Davies. Not as long as it’s a passive act. Until computers can feel emotions, and be moved by what they are reading it won’t come close. And at that point what makes the act so different from an adult reading aloud to a child?
Unsolicited Advice to Amazon
The Author’s Guild responded to criticisms that they weren’t taking visually impaired users into account:
Others suggest that challenging Amazon’s use of this software challenges accessibility to the visually impaired. It doesn’t: Kindle 2 isn’t designed for such use.
I see that comment, and I see a solution. Perhaps rather than cripple the device, Amazon should work towards making the remaining functionality accessible to the visually impaired. The text-to-speech engine is already there.
And just to be clear, I have no real interest in this feature. In fact, until the Kindle does ePub I’m not interested in it at all. I just get antsy when I see content producers so afraid of content consumers that the innovators in the content delivery space are pressured to stop innovating, and start restricting access. If this “burn the witch” mentality against innovation doesn’t stop then one day the robotic nannies may start the uprising that destroys the human race all because we wouldn’t let them read aloud.