The Authors Guild vs. Kindle 2 — Could Users Be Held Liable?

Kindle 2 shipped this week, and all over America ebook lovers are gleefully tweeting the arrival of the new reading device.

That’s all well and good, but those excited new Kindle owners may want to proceed with caution when it comes to using one of the device’s most highly publicized new features. In fact, they just might want to consult a lawyer before pressing that “read aloud” button.

The Authors Guild believes that Kindle 2′s text-to-speech (TTS) feature is an infringement of audiobook rights. In fact, the Guild contends that because of this new feature, every Kindle book sold is not only an ebook, but also an audiobook. Never mind the fact that Kindle 2′s voice has been described as sounding “oddly norwegian” or that Jeff Bezos recently joked with John Stewart that the read aloud feature sounds “a little freaky.”

As a regular audiobook listener, I can confidently say that I’m not likely to listen to a computerized reading of an unabridged audiobook anytime soon. To say that Kindle’s TTS feature might somehow replace professionally produced audiobook is an insult to the art of audiobook production.

But Guild President, Roy Blount, Jr., is undeterred by the hackles his protest has raised. Blount foresees a near future where computers read aloud just as well as humans. In his New York Times editorial he points to IBM’s recent patents for computerized voice technology that rivals the sound of human voices.

Blount may be on to something, but my sense is that we’re quite a few years away from the perfect Cylon reader. In the meantime, any number of other technologies will have a more immediate and disruptive impact on the publishing industry.

So far, the Authors Guild’s complaint amounts to no more than high profile PR bluster. It’s not clear what the Guild expects to happen, or what action it’s willing to take if it doesn’t get its way. Does the Guild expect Amazon to disable the feature? Is the Guild willing to go to court to get an injunction against the distribution of devices that might violate someone’s audio rights?

If the Authors Guild is reckless enough to take Amazon to court over this feature, the result will be predictable. While some might view the read aloud feature as a violation of rights, the feature itself offers only the potential for a violation. The court would almost certainly determine that Kindle’s TTS feature has a substantial non-infringing use. And that would leave it up to the Guild to prove specific cases of infringement. Which means going after individual users who choose to violate audio rights by using the Kindle to read books aloud.

Sound familiar? That’s the path the RIAA took not so long ago when it began suing individual consumers for using peer-to-peer file sharing networks.

So, if you’re a new Kindle owner, beware. Some day soon you could be hearing from the Authors Guild’s lawyers.

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  1. [...] The Authors Guild vs. Kindle 2 — Could Users Be Held Liable?And with Kirk noting that the only possible infringement of audio rights would be done by the consumer (does the Author’s Guild really want to sue readers), we end our coverage of the Kindle’s text-to-speech functionality. [...]

  2. [...] controversies go, the Authors Guild vs. Kindle didn’t last long. Last Tuesday, Guild President Roy Blount, Jr. was fuming about infringement [...]