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Is the Authors Guild the New RIAA?


PUBLISHED: March 3, 2009

When Amazon unveiled the Kindle 2, the Authors Guild immediately raised the alarm that the device’s text-to-speech feature violated authors’ rights. The feature allows the Kindle 2 to read text back to the user in the sort of jangly quasi-robotic voice familiar to those who have employed similar computer programs. (For some sample audio of text-to-speech in action, check out this video of a Kindle 2 demonstration.)

Kindle 2The Authors Guild’s protest of the text-to-speech feature has some logic to it. Audiobooks provide an important revenue source for many authors and publishers, and the text-to-speech feature threatens to make that revenue stream obsolete. One minute with the Kindle 2’s text-to-speech, however, shows that the device has a long way to go before approaching the performance-like quality of any decent audiobook—complete with changes in inflection, accents, pacing, and different character voices. Even so, one can see that in time—likely a long time—a more advanced version of text-to-speech could cause some users to forgo purchasing audiobooks.

Some defenders of the Kindle 2—or simply those bothered by the Authors Guild’s seemingly knee-jerk opposition to the device—have accused the Guild of being a new Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), oblivious to the potentials of new technology and instead threatening lawsuits when compromise, adaptation, and creative thinking would be more appropriate. The president of the National Federation of the Blind accused the Authors Guild of being insensitive, since the text-to-speech function may be useful to the blind, who are limited by the selection of available audiobooks. Tech-savvy writers like Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and part of the Boing Boing team, have railed against the Authors Guild’s position for these reasons and more.

Certainly the Guild has a right to protect its constituents and their livelihoods. And if the organization has overreached in the past—for example, by lobbying against various measures aimed at digitizing books and making them more accessible in internet search results—I think that here they stand on firmer ground; even if the feature in question is rather crude, it may in fact allow users to violate civil law. Amazon seems to agree with the Guild, or they may fear that their immensely popular new product will become tinged with controversy and the acrid odor of litigation. On March 2, the internet behemoth released a statement that opens by plainly stating that “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.” The company also argues that it is heavily invested in audiobooks (via the companies Brilliance and Audible) and feel that the Kindle 2 will help to grow the business. But they go on to announce that they “strongly believe many rightsholders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver’s seat. Therefore, we are modifying our systems so that rightsholders can decide on a title by title basis whether they want text-to-speech enabled or disabled for any particular title.” With that concession, the Authors Guild has won—for now.

Personally, I share Cory Doctorow’s concern, if not his righteous indignation, that the Guild, by its track record, is in danger of becoming the kind of antiquated, maligned, excessively litigious beast that the RIAA is now. Among the many lessons of the collapse of the music industry is that the big labels, in cooperation with the RIAA, chose to resist file-sharing and other new methods of distribution—and to prosecute high school-aged pirates—rather than to find out how they could use digital music to their advantage. CD prices remained absurdly high, and naturally, many consumers fled in the direction of free, if illegal, content. Tower Records, Wherehouse Music, and most other traditional music retailers are gone or have shrunk their CD-display space considerably.

Even now, with the ubiquity of MP3 players and the ease of use and lower costs of iTunes, the industry has no chance to regain its old prominence. Most bands today are better off promoting their music on MySpace and blogs and releasing albums directly via iTunes instead of trying to be signed by a major label. That way, they aren’t beholden to corporate executives, get to pocket more cash, connect easier with fans, have complete artistic freedom, and control their methods of distribution.

Steal This Album!As for the RIAA, it has left behind a tarnished legacy that has alienated it from the industry it’s supposed to help and represent. Major artists like Radiohead and David Byrne released albums without the aid of labels, and Trent Reznor, frontman of Nine Inch Nails, has exhorted fans to “steal, steal and steal some more [music] and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing.” Metal group System of a Down even released a record titled “Steal This Album” that looked like a homemade, burned CD, complete with felt-tip marker labeling. These aren’t kids in their basements or local bands rebelling against the status quo; instead, some of music’s biggest acts decided several years ago that their industry and its main trade group can no longer adequately represent them.

Do we want the publishing industry to become just as fragmented, moribund, and riven with internecine conflicts? Print-on-demand, eBooks, Kindle 2, and other new technologies don’t have to signal the collapse of the industry. They can be, to recklessly paraphrase Faulkner, some of the pillars that prop up publishing in difficult times. They can allow books, especially those niche titles printed in small quantities, to find the interested readers that are surely out there. (Foregoing exorbitant advances for unpublished and celebrity authors and publishing some new titles only in paperback would also help.) Experiments with digital book distribution, including giving away a limited number of free copies in PDF form, have already brought authors much needed exposure and allowed consumers to sample the material before they buy it.

So, Authors Guild, take note: text-to-speech technology is already here, better text-to-speech features are in the offing, and you and those writers you represent would be best served to embrace these dynamic, exciting developments. Find creative ways to work with Amazon and other technology purveyors to make these new products work with and for you. Let’s learn from the failures of the music industry and continue down the path that many publishers and writers are now pursuing: making books as accessible as possible, in any number of formats and at a cost low enough to keep customers happy and committed.

11 Comments

Nathan Bransford's picture
So, Authors Guild, take note: text-to-speech technology is already here, better text-to-speech features are in the offing, and you and those writers you represent would be best served to embrace these dynamic, exciting developments. Find creative ways to work with Amazon and other technology purveyors to make these new products work with and for you. I agree with this part of the article, and yet unilaterally ceding the ground to Amazon is not generally how you find ways to make it work to the benefit of authors. I applaud the Author’s Guild for taking a stand on this. The technology is promising, but that doesn’t mean that author’s should just give up their share to Amazon or whoever comes next.
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Nathan Bransford's picture
Let’s try that again: “The technology is promising, but that doesn’t mean that authors should just give up their share to Amazon or whoever comes next.”
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
The Authors Guild’s position on this is that we don’t have the right to read books out loud, period. The Kindle is merely a technology that makes that possible. This position is just ludicrous, utterly laughable. Jacob, I think your RIAA comparison is apt, but you’re far kinder to the Authors Guild than I would be. Their position is indefensible, premised on the sort of logic that will earn them night after night of late-night TV mockery. I don’t know who handles the Authors Guild’s PR, but they’ve got to have a mighty headache right now.
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Nathan Bransford's picture
The Authors Guild’s position on this is that we don’t have the right to read books out loud, period. Actually, that’s not the Author’s Guild position. They’re only opposing text-to-speech on an e-Reader. From the NY Times Op-Ed: “The guild is also accused of wanting to profiteer off family bedtime rituals. A lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation sarcastically warned that “parents everywhere should be on the lookout for legal papers haling them into court for reading to their kids.” For the record: no, 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.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/25/opinion/25blount.html
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
Ah, so they’ve clarified their prior position, though digging themselves even deeper in the process. They cannot simultaneously argue that a human may read a book out loud, but a computer may not. That’s a distinction without difference. More important, though, there isn’t a single line of copyright law that allows them to make such a prohibition. Once I purchase the rights to a book, I have the right to do whatever I want with it—I can read it out loud, translate it into French, sing it, do an interpretive dance, or photocopy it a thousand times. What I may not do is redistribute any of that. My interpretive dance must be private. Those photocopies are only for me. Until they find somebody using the Kindle to provide a public performance of a book—at which point they should simply request an appropriate royalty payment—they don’t have a leg to stand on. And to anybody who thinks that the Authors Guild is right, I’ve got a caveat for this blog comment: Nobody may quote it at any length, read it more than once, or read it out loud. And Fair Use doesn’t apply, for reasons that I can’t actually explain. If you do these things anyway, then you’re a criminal. I can’t see any reason why that should be objectionable.
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Nathan Bransford's picture
Waldo- I’m not sure why this is inspiring such snark. All the Authors Guild and we as concerned agents are trying to do is stand up for authors in a fracturing media environment. Text to speech is a derivative right that Amazon is profiting off of on the backs of author’s content. You may think it’s silly, but the technology is only going to improve, and unless a stand is taken now, a precedent is set that anyone may produce a mechanized recording that is bundled with content, and authors have ceded the ground. What if, hypothetically, technology came along that allow for a pretty decent automated cartoon based on the descriptions in the book. Should authors then cede their film rights too because the technology is neat and consumers want it for free (because everyone wants things free)? No one is after your interpretive dances, although I’m sure they’re better than text to speech.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
I’m not sure why this is inspiring such snark.
I have zero tolerance for snark, Nathan. (I’m looking forward to David Denby’s new book more than anything else coming out soon.) This is simply honest criticism from somebody more well-acquainted with both the DMCA and copyright law than perhaps I’d care to be.
What if, hypothetically, technology came along that allow for a pretty decent automated cartoon based on the descriptions in the book. Should authors then cede their film rights too because the technology is neat and consumers want it for free (because everyone wants things free)?
Authors wouldn’t need to cede their film rights. They can keep ‘em, and sell the rights to turn their works into films to the highest bidder. But if I want to write a computer program that animates books that I have legally purchased the text to, that’s nobody’s business but mine. If I want to sell that program, that is also nobody’s business but mine. (But if I wanted to distribute that resulting animation, that’s the point at which it’s very much the author’s business.) Copyright law permits me to do whatever I want with that text for my own use, and there’s not a single thing that a publisher or an author can do about that. Authors come off as Luddites here. If they believe what they’re saying, then they’re trying to prevent their own replacement by a superior, cheaper, more efficient technology. If a computer can read a book as well as a human, then clearly there’s no longer a need for humans to read them. If software can turn the text of a book into a cartoon, then there’s no need for filmmakers. Now, I suspect that you and I both know that these things are not going to happen in the foreseeable future. But pretending that they are, authors trying to stop this is like trying to stop the tide. Remember when TV networks were upset about the PVR, specifically TiVo? They argued that it’s illegal to fast-forward through commercials, that they’re not giving people the right to watch shows later, but only live, when originally broadcast. That was dumb. They were wrong. We have the right to shift broadcasts in both time (watching them later) and space (watching them on a different TV or a different medium). Likewise, we have the right to shift text in time (reading whenever we want) and space (reading on a different device or via a different medium). One cannot both believe that the use of a PVR is permissible and that the Authors Guild’s position is defensible. As with networks saying that people recording shows to watch later hindered networks’ ability to sell copies of those shows, the Authors Guild’s opposition to computers reading things out loud is similarly foolish. Again—and I can’t emphasize this enough—the Authors Guild can be as upset as they want to be, but they have no legal ability to enforce such a restriction. Centuries of case law and hundreds of pages of U.S. copyright law don’t contain a single prohibition on this, while the Fair Use doctrine makes very clear that this is totally permissible. The only way for authors and publishers to get around this is to license DRM-encumbered electronic texts only to the manufacturers of locked-down devices, manufacturers who contractually agree that their devices will not permit any use of the text other than that which is explicitly spelled out in that contract. Then—and only then—can text-to-speech (or text-to-movie) prohibitions come into play. If I were to write a program that got around the device’s limitations, its manufacturer (say, Amazon) could serve me with a cease and desist order for violating the DMCA’s circumvention restriction, and I would be in the wrong, legally, even if I wasn’t distributing that circumvention software to others. That sort of end-to-end restriction is difficult to put into place, and tough to enforce, and would lead the Authors Guild to enjoy the popularity of the RIAA, as Jacob explains. Short of that, the Authors Guild is just pissing into the wind.
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Nathan Bransford's picture
Waldo- You bring up a lot of good points, but I think where we differ is where the line is drawn on personal use. The Author’s Guild isn’t suggesting that we make text to speech technology illegal or that we start restricting private uses. I think the thorny issue arises when e-books and text to speech are essentially bundled for sale and used as a promotional device to sell e-Readers and make money without the approval of the author. I don’t think Amazon has the right to profit off of an automated reading of an author’s work. Now, I know it gets murky from there when you start extrapolating out (what about text to speech wands? What about text to speech on computers?), which is why the lines will eventually be decided by people with far more legal expertise than I possess. But still – authors are going to have to take a stand when their work is used for profit as the market continues to be fragmented by new technology. I’m not much concerned with what happened to the RIAA, who had the misfortune of standing in front of a wave of new technology that was so exciting and groundbreaking that it promptly made even honest people lose their minds and forget all ethics whatsoever. The Internet has matured, and I think consumers are more willing to do the right thing by content providers. Besides, no one in their right mind is particularly excited about text to speech. It’s an intellectual exercise at this point.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
Besides, no one in their right mind is particularly excited about text to speech. It’s an intellectual exercise at this point.
Now that we can agree on, Nathan. :)
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James Swezey's picture
I’m not quite certain what all of the hullaboo is about. In some ways I’m certain that Amazon was thinking only how to make a better product with the Kindle and someone came up with this “brilliant” idea which wasn’t part of the last one. I was actually talking to my mother who was speaking with me about the possibility of obtaining a Kindle 2 for my grandmother, and the idea that if her eyes get to the point where they don’t read so well she can still enjoy her favorite stories. If ebook authors are so keen as to obtaining some sort of additional financial piece of that part of the Kindle, they should work with Amazon via their ageny, agency, or publisher about the matter. That is what those entities are there for; to protect the interests of their writers…at least for the most part. Perhaps Amazon should have inquired first before making this decision so as not to step on anybodie’s toes, or at least make it seem as if that is what they were doing. And besides the voice quality of the Kindle 2 isn’t that impressive, and I’m sure I would laugh if I heard it try to annuciate some of the words in my fantasy novel.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
I have to wonder whether authors would be opposed to the ability to change font sizes on an e-book reader. Wouldn’t that cut into sales for large print editions?
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