John Walker's Electronic House

From Kindle To Kindling

by on Mar.04, 2009, under Rants

You know when you read that bedtime story to your kids, your niece or nephew, or maybe that last time you were babysitting? You were violating the copyright agreement of the book, you disgusting criminal. Please hand yourself in immediately to the nearest police station, and you’d better be very, very sorry. As Amazon US has recently learned, reading books out loud without the publisher’s permission is the most heinous of crimes, tantamount to going to the author’s house and shitting in his goldfish bowl.

Of course all sorts of hundreds of years old industries are running around in increasingly frantic circles, alternately pulling at their hair and letting out terrified sobs, as various electronic tools start to render them irrelevant. The music industry is suing every grandmother, child and pet kitten it can find, trying to frighten everyone out of the evil act of sharing. The film industry repeatedly assures us that watching a pirated DVD is directly funding child molesting terrorists. And now the Author’s Guild is claiming that Amazon’s latest gadget, the Kindle 2, is driving writers to bankruptcy by its ability to read the books aloud in a little computer voice.

“Kindle 2 can read books aloud,” wrote Roy Blount Jr, head of the US Author’s Guild, in an op-ed piece in The New York Times last week. “And Kindle 2 is not paying anyone for audio rights.”

Let’s be clear. These are not e-books downloaded by illegal P2P filesharing. These are fully paid for, royalties passed on, legitimate purchases. You’ve paid your $10 for a digital copy of the book, it’s installed on your Kindle 2 (they currently don’t hook up to UK 3G networks, but hopefully Amazon will release a UMTS model soon – in the meantime, if you’re in the States, buy and load up while you’re there), and you take advantage of the device’s new “text-to-speech” function. A computer voice reads it out loud for you, because maybe you’re in the car, or you struggle with reading, or you’re blind. This isn’t Stephen Hawking crackling away at you like an angry toaster, but it still sounds fairly primitive. It isn’t, for instance, a satisfying substitute for an actor reading out the unabridged audio version. But do a quick price comparison. You want Orwell’s 1984 on unabridged audio from That’s going to cost you $233.68. On Kindle, $9.99. Gosh, I wonder why they’re so cross.

As ludicrous as it sounds, Amazon are backing down in response. As of this weekend, publishers will now be given permission to veto their books from the text-to-speech service, effectively hobbling the tool a great many have paid for. More maddening, Amazon do this despite explicitly stating how they know they’re in the right. A statement from giant retailer explained, “Kindle 2’s experimental text-to-speech feature is legal: no copy is made, no derivative work is created, and no performance is being given.” But in order to keep the peace, they are now handing the petulant publishers the control that’s been stomped and screamed for.

The sheer insanity of this goes beyond simple greed. It’s self-defeating greed. Amazon themselves state that customer feedback from Kindle owners suggests they purchase more books, and are believed to be more likely to seek out proper audio books. Forcing restrictions on the Kindle simply makes the piracy option more effective, and more appealing. Download the e-book illegally, and run it through speech software on your own computer – done. Or hell, just download the audio book. When paying for something decreases the product’s worth, piracy begins to offer better customer service. This isn’t smart business.

Blunt Jr scoffs at the suggestion they are implying reading aloud is an affront to author rights, and a violation of the copyright, but crucially doesn’t deny it. Because it is. We accept such ridiculous conditions in our everyday purchases, like turkeys moving our heads to make it easier for the farmer to throttle us. “For the record: no, the Authors Guild does not expect royalties from anybody doing non-commercial performances of ‘Goodnight Moon’,” sneers Blunt as he concludes his editorial. “If parents want to send their children off to bed with the voice of Kindle 2, however, it’s another matter.” Yeah, you bastards! Then he’ll get you!

7 Comments for this entry

  • ImperialCreed

    You see John, everything you just wrote there made perfect, clear sense. And that highlights what’s so dumb about problems like this. People like Blunt have seemingly just lost the ability to think clearly. They certainly aren’t very consumer focused in their policy and efforts and that’s what’s ultimately going to kill them I think. It seems no one has learned from the cack-handed way the music industry has been conducting itself since the birth of the torrent. Even the games industry has been slow to change its ways (and in some cases publishers are even taking steps backwards with DRM).

    And Amazon should be ashamed, that is if faceless international corporations are capable of experiencing emotions. The fact they were clearly right just makes them look like spineless morons.

  • NM

    As a case in point: I was quite willing to purchase an audiobook recently online. It was only available in some obnoxious DRM form which wouldn’t work under Linux. So I did a quick search, found it on hundreds of torrents and had a nice MP3 version half an hour later.

    More recently still, Cory Doctorow made a fan-read version of one of his books available for free. I was so impressed I paid for it.

    Well done, industry!

  • Ian

    People who read books aloud are the worst kind of criminal.

    The sooner we’re allowed to put such people on the rack the better, says I.

  • NM

    In St Augustine’s time, it was considered near witchcraft to read without moving one’s lips and uttering. He writes in awe about a cleric who did this silent devilry.

  • Juliet

    While I can normally read perfectly well, sometimes OCD means it’s near impossible for me to continue reading. Something like this would have been really useful as audio books are so expensive usually (and I would genuinely prefer to pay for them).

  • Dolphan

    This is probably the best I’ve seen on this stuff:

  • J-Man

    Botherer: Officially my favourite new politics/news blog.