Kindle This

So it continues. Today in the New York Times we get an op-ed from writer Roy Blount Jr. who sums up the Author’s Guild position like this: Text-to-speech technology is improving by leaps and bounds. Soon it will be just as good as publisher-produced Audio Books, which is why the Kindle’s text-to-speech must be stopped.

What the guild is asserting is that authors have a right to a fair share of the value that audio adds to Kindle 2’s version of books. For this, the guild is being assailed. On the National Federation of the Blind’s Web site, the guild is accused of arguing that it is illegal for blind people to use “readers, either human or machine, to access books that are not available in alternative formats like Braille or audio.”

In fact, publishers, authors and American copyright laws have long provided for free audio availability to the blind and the guild is all for technologies that expand that availability. (The federation, though, points out that blind readers can’t independently use the Kindle 2’s visual, on-screen controls.) But that doesn’t mean Amazon should be able, without copyright-holders’ participation, to pass that service on to everyone.

[Insert Standard Shakespeare Quote About Protesting Too Much.]

If (and this still remains a big IF) the technology improves to the point that it’s good enough to be on par with an Audio version of a book, then so what? If anything, this cuts out a Middle Man. Audio Books are more expensive than printed books. If someone wants to pay the premium of having an actor read a book, then let them pay. But don’t penalize a reader for paying for a book and then allowing a machine to read it to them in a stilted and undramamtic voice.

(Here’s a little secret: People already spend money to download files that are of inferior sound quality to that found on a CD.)

Why do I seem so obsessed with this particular topic? Because it’s deja vu. It’s the same hyperventilating over a new technology’s changing of a traditional media that happened with the music industry. Now we have the same complaining and dubious legal arguments asserted in the softer tones of the publishing industry. Luckily, this time around we’re not being treated to a deranged Lars Ulrich of Metallica accusing people who download MP3s of stealing music. His arguments were so unhinged that he inspired Camp Chaos’ famed “Napster Bad” cartoons.

This is a case where the publishing industry is reacting in fear to a new technology, instead of embracing it, and finding a way to exploit it for their own benefit. E-books are a slowly-evolving change to the publishing landscape. Publishers should be finding ways to incorporate electronic versions of books into their larger scheme for delivering a writer’s product to the market. But then I guess that must be harder than throwing out half-baked Luddite arguments.

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