Kindle, Text to Speech, and the Author’s Guild

It is with extreme caution that I dip a toe in these waters, but several people have now asked me what I thought of the Author’s Guild position on the Kindle II, and particularly how it may cause real harm to blind or visually impaired readers, and…I do have an opinion. I know that’s a shocker, isn’t it.

To begin with and just to be absolutely clear, I’m in support of the Kindle’s voice feature being generally available. I feel that the benefits to those who have difficulties reading are greater than the potential future hazards to author income.

Now, on to the explanation, which requires some set up. Start with my understanding that (due in part to ADA mandates) all modern American book contracts always include a voice rights for the disabled clause. So, for example, when Minnesota Radio for the blind wanted to broadcast WebMage, that was automatically an allowed usage. I didn’t even hear about it until the book had been running on the radio for several weeks. Had it been the case that they’d had to ask, I’d have been delighted to give permission, but that’s neither here nor there. The important first point is that audio rights for the disabled are automatic, and I don’t know of anyone who is opposed to that.

Next step, the Kindle II and what the author’s guild is trying to do. If the Kindle’s voice feature was aimed only at the disabled audience I am quite certain that the AG would not oppose this. However, it’s a generalized feature and that means that anyone can use it.

Now, an excellent argument can be made that this in no way competes with actual audio book rights because there’s simply no comparison between a talented voice actor and a machine conversion of text-to-speech. A counter argument can be made (and this is I think at the core of the AG objection) that that’s true now, but…what if in 20 years text-to-speech advances enough that it does become a real competitor? If that happens and no protest was made at this point, a court could well find that in not protesting the Kindle II, authors waived their rights to protest the new advanced technology for which they are now not going to be paid. For that matter, what about non-fiction where intonation and story-telling don’t really matter?

Since the publishing industry has a long established tradition of grabbing rights and not paying for them, the changing technology puts the AG in the position of either protesting Kindle II in a way that makes them look really bad right now, or not protesting it and possibly causing significant loss of revenues to their membership at some unknown future point, or, possibly, tomorrow for non-fiction. Now, as I said at the outset, I think the generalized good of allowing the Kindle to use text-to-speech outweighs the possible risks to future authorial income, but at the same time, I sympathize with the fact that it puts the AG between a rock and a hard place. It is not nearly as easy a question as it seems.

So, no, the AG is not insane or evil, just in a difficult position and quite probably wrong.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog April 13 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)