The Kindle, Copyright, and Neil Gaiman

Amazon has announced the release of the second version of the Kindle. Not available for sale yet, it promises to have some pretty nifty upgrades. It is thinner, lighter, has longer battery life, holds more types of files, etc. And, for those of us serving people with disabilities, one very promising update has been offered to the Kindle. It now comes with a developing text-to-speech function. This means that you can plug in headphones and listen to the book.

Don’t get any grand illusions that using this function will give you the true experience of an audio book. An audio book is professionally recorded, using a human voice, and plenty of post-production work to make it perfect. Hearing audio produced by text-to-speech software has no pre- or post-production; it reads the words straight off the page, in a monotoned electronic voice. It’s not something most people would choose to listen to. Its true value exists for those in the disabled community who for whatever reason cannot read traditional printed text. For these people, text-to-speech is a God send. Text-to-speech allows them equal access to materials we certainly take for granted, like web pages, books, newspapers, blogs, etc.

But of course, any time something like this is introduced, author groups and publishers, ala the RIAA, have to scream copyright infringement. This time, it’s the Authors Guild, who has informed its member literary agents that the Kindle 2’s text-to-speech is a violation of copyright because using such a thing makes it a derivative work and therefore illegal to use.

“They don’t have the right to read a book out loud,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. “That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

Mr. Aiken is misguided. The purchase of a book gives me the right to do what I want with it, including reading it aloud, or having someone read it aloud for me. I can use it to prop up the leg of a coffee table if I want, too. That could, on the fringe, be called a “derivative work” as well. But no, the book is mine, I can read it out loud, I can even record it onto tape and play it in my car if I want. I can read it out loud to my kids, or read a passage or two of interest to a friend or colleague. I can even type a paragraph or two of a book right into my own blog, which is considered fair use by all copyright standards. The text-to-audio feature of the Kindle 2 is no different than using the buttons on the Kindle to enlarge the text, in my opinion.

And I’m not alone. Neil Gaiman’s blog entry for yesterday gives his short version of the argument he had with his own literary agent over this issue, along with his assertion that text-to-audio software is no different a use than reading a book out loud with your own voice. Neil Gaiman is one of those artists who “get it,” and has for a long time. Kindle’s new and wonderful feature is not in any way a threat to publishers and artists. Believe me, no person wants to listen to software text-to-speech conversion unless they need to. It’s not something anyone would pay money to buy. And besides that, the person with the Kindle presumable already purchased the book, or it wouldn’t be on the Kindle in the first place.