Authors Guild President: What, Then, of the Playing and Talking Machines?
The idea of derivative rights and royalties for text-to-speech “audio books” like those provided by Amazon’s Kindle 2 might seem ludicrous now, but will it seem ludicrous in a few years when the device’s now grating text-to-speech voice has been inevitably humanized? A reasonable question, and one that Roy Blount Jr., president of the Authors Guild, poses in an Op Ed in the New York Times today. An excerpt, rejiggered a bit to better make the point that Blount buried in a rather circuitous editorial.
Kindle 2 can read books aloud. And Kindle 2 is not paying anyone for audio rights. True, you can already get software that will read aloud whatever is on your computer. But Kindle 2 is being sold specifically as a new, improved, multimedia version of books–every title is an e-book and an audio book rolled into one. And whereas e-books have yet to win mainstream enthusiasm, audio books are a billion-dollar market, and growing. Audio rights are not generally packaged with e-book rights. They are more valuable than e-book rights. Income from audio books helps not inconsiderably to keep authors, and publishers, afloat….You may be thinking that no automated read-aloud function can compete with the dulcet resonance of Jim Dale reading ‘Harry Potter’ or of authors, ahem, reading themselves. But the voices of Kindle 2 are quite listenable….And that sort of technology is improving all the time….no part of my voice is competing with my own audio books yet. But people who want to keep on doing creative things for a living must be duly vigilant about any new means of transmitting their work.”
The crux of Blount’s argument, then, is not so much that the roboticized nondramatic book readings of the Kindle threaten the audio book market today, but that they will in the future when they better approximate the human voice. We must be vigilant about any news means of transmitting our work. And given that, wouldn’t it be prudent to rethink the way authors license and profit from their work? That seems a reasonable point and one worth discussing. After all, we’ve seen this situation time and time again, all the way back to John Philip Sousa and player piano music rolls. In fact, if you think about it, the Kindle’s text-to-speech function is a sort of player piano for books. And if you take that view, these words from Sousa, penned back in 1906, still resonate today:
For the life of me I am puzzled to know why the powerful corporations controlling these playing and talking machines are so totally blind to the moral and ethical questions involved. Could anything be more blamable, as a matter of principle, than to take an artist’s composition, reproduce it a thousandfold on their machines, and deny him all participation in the large financial returns, by hiding back of the diaphanous pretense that in the guise of a disk or roll, his composition is not his property?
Do they not realize that if the accredited composers, who have come into vogue by reason of merit and labor, are refused a just reward for their efforts, a condition is almost sure to arise where all incentive to further creative work is lacking, and compositions will no longer flow from their pens; or where they will be compelled to refrain from publishing their compositions at all, and control them in manuscript? What, then, of the playing and talking machines?”
What then of the Kindle?