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The Engadget Interview: Paul Aiken, Executive Director of the Authors Guild

Nilay Patel
February 27, 2009

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As you're no doubt aware, this week's launch of the Kindle 2 came complete with copyright controversy -- the Authors Guild says that Amazon's text-to-speech features will damage the lucrative audiobook market. To be perfectly frank, we're of two minds on on this debate: on one hand, we're obviously all for the relentless progression of technology, and on the other, we sussed out the fundamental reasons for the Guild's objections almost immediately. It's pretty easy to find the first set of arguments online, but we wanted to make sure we weren't missing anything, so we sat down with Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken and asked him some burning questions. Read on!

So, everyone's dying to know -- have you or the other directors of the Authors Guild actually listened to the Kindle 2's text-to-speech? Would you actually sit down and listen to an entire book read by it? Who do you think will?

Sure we have! We posted a demo of the Kindle reading from Jeff Bezo's presentation on February 9th, compared to the same bit of text -- part of the Gettysburg Address -- read by earlier text-to-speech software built into Mac OS a few years ago. We were curious how much progress the technology's made, and to our ears it's made a generational leap -- it's much better than it was. What we're looking at is the trend here, where it's headed, how good will it be three, four, five years out from now and the threat that might pose to the audiobook industry.

Does the Authors Guild currently have a Kindle 2 apart from what you've posted online of the presentation?

Yes, would you like to hear it? (laughs) I was listening to it this morning!

So you're not specifically worried about the Kindle 2.

Of course we're worried about the Kindle 2. For one thing, Amazon can upgrade the software anytime they like; for another, whether or not this poses an immediate threat to the current audiobook industry, text-to-speech still is and should be a legitimate market for authors and publishers. Just because Amazon does something a bit clever with their ebook reader and adds technology which allows them to render text into speech doesn't mean they get to exploit it for all it's worth, without sharing with authors and publishers. In our view this is a legitimate market.

So would you call this a legal objection or an economic one?

There's legal objections and there's economic, or business objections.

Can you delineate what your legal objections are?

Well, the legal objections fall in a couple categories. One is the basic copyright objection which I know has been bandied about a lot online, and that objection comes in two parts. There's the unauthorized reproduction of the work which is one claim under copyright law -- for that there has to be fixation of the copy and there's a legal question as to whether or not there's adequate fixation in the Kindle. The second claim is that text-to-speech creates a derivative work, and under most theories of copyright law, there doesn't have to be fixation for there to be a derivative work created.

So what you're really saying is that the Kindle affects the market of people who are buying both the printed book and an audiobook. Is that actually something you're concerned about or are you saying that by buying an ebook you should not also get rights to an audiobook?

There's no reason in an industry you should be stuck with the markets you have today. As technology develops, one hopes to have new markets. Whether or not this displaces the print market or the audiobook market is only part of the question -- the other question is whether there's a new market here that authors and publishers should legitimately have and whether Amazon is trying to preempt that with this product. You can look at it as the hybrid ebook / audiobook market, which is essentially now what Amazon has come out with -- a hybrid ebook with a low quality audiobook packaged with it. It could be that you can take entire texts, run'em through text-to-speech software and create a quick audiobook that can be downloaded or sold as CDs.

I think that goes back to your original two legal arguments -- you would definitely be fixing a derivative work in that case, but here the Kindle 2 is just reading what somebody has already purchased. Do you see the distinction between those two things? I don't think anybody thinks you should be able to record text-to-speech and then sell that.

Right, okay, but how much of a market is there if Amazon is giving away that product for free? All you have to do is pay $350 and buy the Kindle.

You think people will actually record the Kindle 2 and distribute those recordings?

Oh, do I think people will go from the Kindle 2 and record and play? I don't know what people will do, but that's not really the issue or the basis of our complaint about it.

So your fundamental complaint with the Kindle 2 right now is that it is creating audiobooks. It's replacing the market for audiobooks.

No, let me be clear: it has the potential to replace audiobooks. I don't know if it's good enough at the moment to do that. It certainly could in the future with one or two generations of software, I don't know how quick that'll happen. It could have a significant impact on the audiobook market. But, beyond that...

Would you sit down and listen to the Kindle 2 read an entire book to you right now?

I haven't listened to it long enough to make that sort of judgment yet. I doubt it. I mostly read books, I'm not much of an audiobook consumer. I guess a bit for my kids I am.

This seems like a free rider problem to me, where you have people who are now getting something that they would have had to pay for before -- previously you had to buy two things and now you only have to buy one. Do you see a market right now of people who are buying both the print and the audio version of a book?

I would imagine that's a small market.

If there's any market, if there's any royalties that are going to diminish right now, it would be that market, wouldn't it?

Without knowing people's preferences it's hard to say. I mean it could be that someone who would've bought an audiobook will say, "Well the Kindle version's a lot cheaper, and the quality just doesn't matter too much to me, so I'll pay $10 for the Kindle version of the audiobook rather than $35 for the regular audiobook."

Are you worried about that right now? The Kindle 2's text-to-speech is pretty bad, I think that's the sticking point for a lot of our readers.

It's not for me or anyone else to decide that. It's a matter of consumers' taste, and we've heard a variety of responses on that from "it's much better than I thought" to "it's god-awful." I think it's quite subjective as to how listenable the current Kindle is.

But either way, when people purchase content on the Kindle, the authors are getting a sale. Isn't it for the best to let people consume content however they want, as long as the authors are getting paid in the end? You're potentially getting a new market, a new sale.

Sure. If Amazon had talked to people here's how it might have worked for launch of Kindle 2. Text-to-speech could've been a simple point-of-purchase add on: You buy the ebook, you want the additional text-to-speech functionality, fine, you check a box, you pay an extra $1.75 and that's turned on for that particular ebook. It takes care of all sorts of problems, not just the legal problems. It takes care of contractual problems that are quite complex that no one knows how to untangle with the way hybrid products are being sold.

You're calling it a hybrid product, when it's really just a book.

There are electronic rights involved and there are audio rights involved.

This leads right into the next question -- you've got ebook sales happening right now on computers that can do text-to-speech. So are you going to go after Apple, after Microsoft?

Of course not. There's a fundamental difference between a text-to-speech on a general use machine, such as a Mac or a PC, and a dedicated device that is intended primarily for consuming books.

What's the difference?

The difference is that there are audio rights involved in the books -- the Kindle converts every book that's sold into something other than just an ebook.

But if I buy an ebook on the Mac, which I can do...

Which you can do but not for a lot of books.

So you're saying that the difference is not actually the device, it's the size of the market?

The difference is the channel. For example, many publishers do not have the audio rights or the multimedia rights when they sell electronic books. If they sell files that go into a Kindle and they know its going to use a audio capability that is exclusively licensed to somewhere else, the publisher has a problem, because the author has licensed it somewhere else.

But the license the author and the publisher grant is the license to prepare a derivative work that ultimately becomes an audio recording. Here, there may be no license required because the Kindle is just reading. What is the difference in your mind between the Kindle reading and the consumer reading?

For one thing, the Kindle can function as a pure audiobook player if you wanted it to. You could cover up the screen and have it just play out as an audiobook. So what kind of file has been sold to the Kindle? Is it an ebook file or is it an audiobook file? It's a hybrid file -- it's both. You give it a bunch of digits and it converts it into a display, or into audio. It does both.

But again, with a regular book, you can read it out loud or you can read it to yourself.

Of course and that's absolutely fine.

And I don't think that the Authors Guild has any objection to people purchasing a book and reading it out loud to their kids.

(laughs) The Authors Guild has never had any objections to reading books out loud to your kids! In fact, I do it every night myself.

So the Kindle is doing the same thing the consumer would do. The consumer takes the "digits" and turns them into a book or a performance -- so what's the difference between the Kindle and the average person either reading or performing the book?

We're just not going to agree on this. As we see it, the difference is, the machine playing an audio version that the publisher often does not have the right to sell. They do not have the multimedia or audio right that goes with the electronic book. As a matter of contract, we have a problem and as a matter of copyright, we have a problem.

I'm certain you've taken a long look at what's happened in the music industry, and what's now happening in the film industry. Is there a reason that you would want to fight technology at this juncture as opposed to actively...

We don't want to fight it, we want it to be licensed. We think the lesson from the music industry is to make stuff available at reasonable price, and that's what we want to do. We want to enable this market, but we don't want Amazon to take control of it by default. We think it's something that is rightfully the rights holders' to license.

Have you spoken to Amazon? What's been the response?

I'm not going to discuss communication with Amazon.

But you'll say that you have communicated with Amazon.


Amazon owns Audible, which is the largest seller of audiobooks. Doesn't it seem a little incongruous of the Authors Guild to claim that Amazon is trying to destroy the market for audiobooks when they profit immensely from it?

Sure. They see ebook as a potentially bigger market than audiobooks.

Does the Authors Guild think that's true?

There's nothing inconsistent if that's their view. If they think ebooks are going to be a more important market than audiobooks then what they're doing might make perfect sense.

It sounds like fundamentally the Authors Guild is looking for a payment -- not necessarily an ajudication from a court, but a straightforward payment of increased license fees for an ebook edition to cover the potential lost sales of an audiobook.

Well, this is a new market. You keep coming back to loss of audiobook sales, but that's not necessarily the way this should go. In any business you try not to play a zero-sum game, you're trying to grow markets. Publishing, like many other media industries, needs revenue sources.

So you see four markets: print books, ebooks, audiobooks and now text-to-speech ebooks?

Text-to-speech ebooks and potentially text to speech pure audiobooks.

And you think those will be cheaper than the performed audiobooks and that people will buy them.

I would imagine.

What's the feedback from members of the Authors Guild been?

They have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive of our position.

So the vocal dissenters that we've heard, are not...

They're few and far between.

What's your ideal resolution to this debate? What would you tell the average consumer who sees the Authors Guild saying that he -- and this is the perception -- that he shouldn't be allowed to read a book?

They can read a book! Of course they can read a book. We've never taken a position other than that they're allowed to read a book aloud to their kids. Private performances are unregulated by copyright law. We feel the ideal solution is one where there's an add-on for electronic books and text-to-speech functionality and the market is enabled for that functionality.

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