At Amazon.com's Kindle 2 launch at the Morgan Library and Museum on Feb. 9, CEO Jeff Bezos highlighted a new feature for the Kindle electronic reader: text-to-speech. It's good news for anyone who wants a document read to him or her in an electronic voice, but according to The Authors Guild it also potentially violates copyright law.
The Authors Guild said it believes the Kindle 2's ability to read out loud could present a revenue-draining challenge to audio books, an idea the guild evidently finds scarier than a new novella by Stephen King.
The Kindle 2, slimmer than an iPhone with a width of 0.36 inches and retailing for $359, features a grayscale screen and 25 percent more battery life than its predecessor; it can also hold 1.4GB of user-accessible memory, making it useful for storing enterprise documents.
The current bone of contention, however, is the ability to have a flat, male or female electronic voice read aloud whatever's on the screen, effectively making the document into an audio book even if it was sold as a text.
"Bundling e-books and audio books has been discussed for a long time in the industry. It's a good idea, but it shouldn't be accomplished by fiat by an e-book distributor," said a statement on The Authors Guild Web site. "We're studying this matter closely and will report back to you."
However, the statement made no mention of an imminent lawsuit on the part of the guild, which advocates for writers' rights in the areas of copyright protection, contracts and "free expression," according to its Web site.
Whether or not The Authors Guild does try to litigate, some legal experts say they believe the underlying case is thin.
"Text-to-speech doesn't result in making more copies of the book or in performing the copy on the Kindle to anyone else, the normal ways that copyright would be triggered," James Grimmelmann, an associate professor at New York Law School's Institute for Information Law and Policy, said in an interview.
"The Authors Guild's argument is that [text-to-speech] creates a 'derivative work' based on the book but different from it. The problem with that argument is that courts have held that a derivative work isn't created unless there's fresh originality added to it-the way that a movie version of a novel has a screenplay, editing, music and so on," Grimmelmann said.
Mechanically turning words into computer-synthesized speech, in his opinion, seems unlikely to add the necessary originality, he said.
Fresh from the Kindle 2 launch, Amazon.com has already started marketing accessories for the device, including a selection of protective leather and polyester covers and clip-on lights.