Know Your Rights: Does the Kindle 2's text-to-speech infringe authors' copyrights?

Know Your Rights is Engadget's technology law series, written by our own totally punk ex-copyright attorney Nilay Patel. In it we'll try to answer some fundamental tech-law questions to help you stay out of trouble in this brave new world. Disclaimer: this isn't legal advice, but it is best read aloud by a text to speech app.

Hey, so does the Kindle 2's Read to Me text-to-speech feature really infringe on authors' copyrights?

It's nice to be back! It's been a while.

Yeah yeah. Get to it.

Okay, so the issue is that the Kindle 2's Read to Me feature obviously threatens the audiobook market, and while at first blush it seems like the Authors Guild has a pretty weak case when executive director Paul Aiken says things like "They don't have the right to read a book out loud," it's not necessarily as ridiculous as it seems.

Yeah, that's totally ridiculous! Wait, what?

Well, think about it this way -- once you get it on the Kindle 2, an ebook can serve as both a regular book (that you read) and a recording (that you listen to). What the Authors Guild seems to be saying -- in a totally backwards and potentially inaccurate way -- is that while Amazon has the rights to sell you the book, it doesn't have the rights to sell you the recording.

Are you seriously saying that I don't have the right to read a book out loud? Girl, you crazy.

No, you absolutely have the right to read a book out loud -- but you're not allowed to make recordings of yourself and sell them. That's something only authors are allowed to do, and it's hard to have a problem with that. You'd be pretty miffed if someone started selling recorded versions of your blog without compensating you, wouldn't you?

But the Kindle isn't playing back recordings -- it's synthesizing sounds based on the words in the book! Isn't that just a private reading?

Sure, and a MIDI piano isn't playing back song recordings, it's just playing notes from a file that sound exactly like the sound recording, right?

This is actually pretty tough stuff -- as far as edge cases go, this one pushes right up against the boundaries of the current law. On one hand, you definitely have the right to read books that you own out loud using whatever tools you want, and on the other, authors definitely have the right to prevent others from selling audio versions of their works. The Kindle's text-to-speech feature blurs the lines between books and recordings, and that means those two rights are in conflict with each other.

Come on, text-to-speech has been around forever! What's next, suing Apple for MacInTalk?

It's always gotta be Apple, doesn't it?

Answer the question, smartass.

Well, sure, you can buy ebooks and play them back using OS X's text-to-speech voices. But here's the thing -- no one really does that, so no one cares. The Kindle is the first major text-to-speech device that could impact audiobook sales, so it's not surprising it's the first to garner this kind of scrutiny. Remember: just because someone can file a lawsuit doesn't mean they have to.

Okay, but who's honestly going to choose the Kindle's computer voice over a real person reading an audiobook?

You're right, nothing's ever going to compare to a real live person reading to you, but it's not like technology ever stops progressing -- while the Kindle 2's voice isn't the best, we'd bet almost anything that the Kindle 5 or the Kindle 10 will be more than adequate for a lot of people. Remember, people happily listen to 128kbps MP3s through crappy iPod headphones all day long -- eventually the quality tipping point will come, and the Authors Guild is just trying to protect its own before they get totally bowled over.

So basically Amazon just has to pay up?

Well, maybe -- it's not exactly terrific public policy to say that text should be considered a recording as well, especially given the prevalence and intrinsic value of computerized text-to-speech. We'd say that means Amazon should fight this one out, honestly, but that doesn't mean Jeff Bezos won't just cut a check and make this all go away for now. You can do that when you're Amazon.

Look, just make this easy for me: who should I flame in comments? That's all I really need to know.

Doesn't matter -- we read everything back in the OS X "Princess" voice anyway, tough guy.

Thanks again to Matt Gavronski of Michael Best & Friedrich for his assistance!