Saturday, February 28, 2009

Amazon compromises on Kindle 2's 'read-to-me' feature; who can blame them?

Amazon'.com's announcement that it will permit authors and publishers to determine, title-by-title, whether to permit the new Kindle 2 to read aloud their books, has been greeted with predictable disdain from the copyleft.

"It's disappointing that the company wasn't at least willing to stand up for its right to offer such a feature without needing permission," says Techdirt. Harvard Law School professor Larry Lessig calls the Authors Guild's objections to the "read-to-me" feature "Corleone-like" and Amazon's move "caving in to bullies." Slashdotters are in high dudgeon.

I can certainly understand those who take issue with the Authors Guild's insistence that the Kindle 2's text-to-speech feature constitutes a violation of copyright law. While I'm hesitant to be too definitive without fully understanding the technical details of this aspect of the device, from what I have been able to glean, I am skeptical that the "read-to-me" feature actually violates any of the copyright holders' exclusive rights.

So should Amazon have boldly "stood up" to the Authors Guild? Well, if you're a blogger or an academic, it's easy to so insist. If, however, you're a licensee of books from authors and publishers, you have other concerns. Remember: Amazon can only offer books via Kindle because it has contracts with authors and/or publishers that permit it to reproduce, display, and distribute their books in digital form. I haven't seen such contracts, but I'm confident they contain myriad deal points: money, term of license, and exquisite detail about what Amazon is actually permitted to do with the digital copies. An author or publisher would be perfectly within his rights to demand a clause like: "Amazon shall not in any manner facilitate through the Kindle 2 the automated conversion of the text of the Book into audible speech that may be heard by the user." (Of course whether the inclusion of such a clause by the licensor would be a wise business decision is a separate question.)

The point is that Amazon and the authors and publishers are bargaining here not just in the shadow of copyright law; they also have an ongoing and (hopefully) future business relationship that neither side wants to destroy over any one issue. If it takes a compromise over one deal point (among many) to preserve that relationship, well, bloggers and academics can race to the barricades, but Amazon, the publishers, and the authors are going to focus on running their respective businesses. I can hardly blame them.

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