Blown To Bits

Who’s Swindling Whom?

Saturday, February 28th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

A few days ago, Roy Blount, Jr., writing as president of the Authors Guild, wrote an opinion piece in the NYT complaining that Amazon, which produces the Kindle book reader, was screwing authors and publishers. The alleged rip-off was this: The new Kindle II has a “talk” button. Push it and it reads the book to you in a computer-generated voice. Pretty much every computer shipped today has the same feature built into its operating system. The intonation isn’t perfect, either on Kindles or on your Windows machine or Mac, but Blount, I would judge, can see much better voices coming, and wants to stop this reading aloud in its tracks. Or rather, stop it long enough to collect a toll.

Blount complains that pushing the talk button turns the written word, which was all you paid for, into a “public performance.” He is magnanimously prepared to make an exception for blind folks. But if your daughter curls up in bed with a Kindle and pushes the talk button, he wants to collect an additional fee¬†for the mechanical voice in your child’s darkened bedroom, beyond what you paid Amazon.

[N]o, the Authors Guild does not expect royalties from anybody doing non-commercial performances of “Goodnight Moon.” If parents want to send their children off to bed with the voice of Kindle 2, however, it’s another matter.

Some buzz was starting to build around what legally constituted a public performance and whether pushing the talk button (on your computer or your Kindle) was really turning the bits from an ebook into an Audiobook. And then all of a sudden, under the cover of darkness of a 5pm Friday press release, Amazon flinched. It added one bit to all the bits that constitute an ebook download to the Kindle II. The one extra bit is set by the publisher, and it tells the Kindle whether the book can be read aloud. If Amazon sends your kindle the ebook with that bit off, pushing the Talk button will do nothing.

The publishing industry is retracing the steps of the music industry. Just as the recording industry is giving up on some of the more absurdly restrictive digital rights management schemes, book publishers are inventing new ones of their own.

Thanks to Chris Soghoian for pointing out the Amazon change of heart. The buzz is continuing about the legalities of this, and about whether the people who really got screwed were those who bought the Kindle expecting that the talk button would work the way it was initially advertised. But the common sense of it is unquestionable. It’s another reminder that when you “buy” a book or a song from a downloading service, you don’t own it. You are being allowed to use it only in ways the service dictates — and the service can even change its mind about that later.

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