Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Kindle 2 reads books aloud ...

... and the Authors Guild is objecting to this. It's a very interesting point. Traditionally, print rights and audiobook rights are separate. and others have done audiobooks of my novels, and those deals are with me, not the print publisher (in fact, today I just got a nice check from my agent for part-two of's fee for their audio book of my Wake, coming in April).

(The Kindle 2 is's second-generation dedicated ebook-reading device; it was announced this Monday, February 9, 2009, and is expected to ship shortly.)

For the last five-plus years, print publishers have been insisting on grabbing ebook rights along with print rights (Tor threw around terms like "non-negotiable" and "deal-breaker," as apparently mandated by their parent company). But ebook rights are very specifically defined as the right to display text electronically. Amazon recognizes that it can't allow people to print Kindle-edition books, but it has simply gone ahead and allowed them to be read aloud by the device -- turning every ebook into a de facto audio book.

Now, yes, today, the quality is crap, and a professionally performed audiobook is obviously a much better experience -- but that's not always going to be the case; computers will be able to do quite credible readings of even dramatic material in a few years' time. And another significant source of writers' incomes (for me, audio-books were a five-figure part of my business last year) may evaporate ... without consultation, without discussion, without negotiation.

I'm not saying that, ultimately, the right to have text read aloud electronically should be limited; I am saying that the way in which the publishing industry and traditional rights issues are being trampled without consultation -- whether it's Amazon potentially cannibalizing audio-book rights (and the irony that they now own is not lost on me) or Google just goin' ahead and digitizing my books, and everyone else's, without so much as a "May I?," is pernicious. The Authors Guild is right to be objecting, and Amazon was wrong to do this without permission; all stakeholders need to be involved in the discussions -- including authors.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site



At February 12, 2009 2:24 PM , Blogger Ron Friedman said...

First of all, even if Amazon disable the text to speech feature within kindle 2, surly you don't expect there wouldn’t be other devices which will have that capability.

My second point is that: Maybe the option to read aloud any text will increase your e-boos sales enough to justify the revenue loss from Audio books sales?
I'm probably wrong with my 2nd point, yet I don't think humanity should freeze technological progress.

At February 12, 2009 2:39 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Ron, you work for a software company. As you know, I can easily pirate anything you create. Your point, clearly, is that I should do that; that license agreements and creators' rights are meaningless, and that because technically something can be taken, it should be, and anyone who would stand in the way of that is a fool for impeding technological progress.

Or is it only the food of my table that you think should be up for anyone to grab, while yours should be protected?

As to the technological feasibility point: there is no ebook reading platform that allows the printing of DRM-protected ebooks, which is a much-simpler technological issue than converting them to speech. So you're wrong to suggest that rights for the ways in which electronic text can be used aren't and can't be imposed.

On your second point, you're missing my point: no one has the right to say to me, oh, you know that contract we signed? We're just rippin' it up and doin' whatever we please -- but, don't worry, someday it might work out in your favor anyway (or not, we don't really know or care). But, either way, you shouldn't even be asked, 'cause, y'know, we're bigger than you so, when it comes down to it, you actually don't have any rights. Contracts? It is to laugh.

Further, Ron, you missed the rest of what I said, too: I did not give Tor the rights to make, for instance, Flash Forward, available in an electronic edition to be read aloud, but any benefit that might come from this I now have to split with Tor (whereas the audiobook rights money was entirely mine).

Of course, Tor will argue that they didn't give Amazon those rights, either -- and that's the real point: Amazon just took those rights. And you're saying that's just fine. It isn't.

At February 12, 2009 4:43 PM , Blogger Ron Friedman said...

Rob, I don’t try to take your bread and butter. You work very hard to write novels (I should know; I’m trying to follow your footsteps). These are great books and I defiantly believe you should be rewarded for your wonderful work.

What if a blind person (say Caitlin Decter, from your Novel WAKE) uses a TTS (Text-To-Speech) synthesizer to read a text-book or a text web page? Does she violate copyright laws? Does the company who make the TTS synthesizer must pay royalties or obtain permission from all the writers on the planet?

Your points are valid. Yet there are other arguments.

As for kindle 2, from working in voice-recognition industry, I can tell you we still got years before a TTS engin could compete with a human reader. But that’s outside the scope of our desiccation.

At February 12, 2009 5:50 PM , Blogger J0hnnyB said...

That's the first reaction to this story I've heard that was thoughtful and not just scoffing at the guilds. Thanks.

At February 12, 2009 5:57 PM , Blogger Sean said...

Heaven forbid those with learning disabilities, vision problems or the blind are able to get some use out of the Kindle. No, instead they'll have to cart around overpriced audio books because the publishing industry sincerely believes it has the right to stand in the way of innovation.

And even if the disabled are not the primary users (and given the quality of the text to speech - I have no idea who but the disabled would be using it) why should a feature that exists in everyday personal computers suddenly become "illegal" when it threatens your "business"? No, Rob, you actually DON'T have the right to tell me what I can do with something that I legally purchased. Just as the music industry has no right to tell me I can't convert files to different formats to play on my MP3 or CD player you have no right to tell me I can't convert the text in your novels to audible speech. Nor do you have the right to imply that a device that facilitates that very action is doing something wrong.

You're right in one respect: This is a business. And the new features of the Kindle represent new competition for your business. The publishing industry may insist on fighting a battle that they will lose as catastrophically as the music industry did, or they could grow up and realize that in business you have two choices; innovate or get left behind.

At February 12, 2009 11:55 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Sean. Get off your high horse. We authors have FOR YEARS routinely and without compensation given away audiobook rights to the visually impaired.

Every single one of my books is available for free, read by a talented reader, through the CNIB and comparable organizations in other countries.

We're NOT talking about taking rights away from the visually impaired. Those rights are already taken care of, and in a far better way than a mechanical, unemotional reading.

Hear that, Sean? They already get them FOR FREE: the audio recordings are FREE to those who have legitimate need for them, the authors and the publisher WAIVE THEIR RIGHTS TO COMPENSATION.

As to TTS being a technology solely aimed at the disabled, well, as with everything else you said, a little research will enlighten you; I suggest you do it.

As for software (including books) having license agreements governing what those who license copies can do with them, in point of fact, Sean, yes, the copyright owners do have the right to set the terms of those licenses. That IS the law, Sean.

At February 13, 2009 12:10 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Ron, we're talking about a specific issue: can a license for DISPLAYING electronic text be expanded without consent, consultation, or compensation into a license to DISPLAY AND READ ALOUD that text? Why on earth would you argue that it should be okay to do that?

Amazon does not have express contractual consent to do what they're doing. What possible legal justification is there for saying that that's okay, that they shouldn't need to get consent, that the terms of license are irrelevant and unilaterally changeable?

At February 13, 2009 12:38 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

And let's be clear here: no one is talking about stifling innovation. Text-to-speech is a terrific technology, but it was not invented by, and it wasn't invented for the Kindle. It will exist and research into it will go on regardless.

At February 13, 2009 12:42 AM , Blogger Ian said...

Interesting to read your perspective on it after having read Neil Gaiman's take on the same thing:

I'm not sure where I would fall - both of you make good points. Realistically, the TTS of the Kindle sucks, so I can't see many people who would've bought the audiobook being satisfied with the voice quality of HAL reading the latest thriller. Actually, that would probably be an improvement over TTS.

At February 13, 2009 12:47 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

The TTS sucks NOW -- but it won't always. But NOW is the time to clarify the rights issue; we can't wait until TTS is a viable alternative to a human reader to decide to stand up and say, excuse me, but when exactly did you acquire the contractual right to do this?

At February 17, 2009 1:46 AM , Blogger Ross Eadie said...

If the actual legal definition of e-text is for display only, I believe copyright law must be changed to stop the discrimination. Giving up one's money for people who are blind is not my definition of a fair trade. We don't want charity. Just access for the purchase price as anyone else. TTS is more than ten years away from being able to create a truly different work from the e-text. Scott Brick reads an oral version of say Dune, The Butlarian Jehod (spelling may be off) in a way that brings human life to it. It takes a human to add the emotion or emphasis. A computer synthesis of text cannot come anywhere near Scott Brick. therefore, I believe authors are jumping to conclusions way to fast here. Yes consultation should have been part of the creation of the Kindle 2, but all stakeholders were not consulted were they? I would site my post that talks about right and responsibilities to deal with my belief of what we pay for when buying a book in whatever format. Braille displays use e-text as well. Would someone disabree with this usage of the word display? Anyway your sales of books will not wane. My move on the audible version of Wake is going to be quick. the day it shows up is the day I download it. I much prefer the artistic creation that comes from a human's ability to orally read a book. My wife's voice reading ... will never be duplicated for anyone's ears but my own. Well, providing we stay married. Don't worry you don't write those kinds of books. I buy the paper backs in this case.

At February 17, 2009 10:04 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Ross, elsewhere you're being picayune about semantics ("text to speech" vs. "voice synthesis"), but here you're conflating "e-text" (any text in electronic format) and "commercial eBook." When you (or Ron, earlier) talk about reading freely available text with assistive technologies as if that was the same precise issue as is under discussion here (the grant of rights by authors to publishers, and by publishers to Amazon), you're obfuscating.

As for the rest, I respond over in this other thread, where you also posted. :)


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