There is a lot that Amazon has done right over the years. Just the other day, the Washington Post ran a story about companies that have done well in the face of the recession. Amazon’s sales are up 18 percent, profit up 9 percent. In this day and age, that's fabulous.
That’s why it was disappointing to read that Amazon folded like a flimsy book page on the issue whether their new Kindle should be able to sound out words. Amazon had already taken a big step in that direction, allowing sufficient encryption, at the publisher’s discretion, so that the Kindle text is forever tied to the Kindle. Some authors even object to the DRM. Update: Amazon has loosened the ties to the Kindle with a new iPhone app that will allow Kindle-like functions.
In doing so, Amazon took the weasel way out, establishing a new legal standard. Rather than be governed by law, the Amazon statement said that the comfort of the rights holders will be the basis for their actions. So while the company believes that no copies were made, and no new derivative work was created, “we strongly believe many rightsholders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver's seat.” That’s sheer nonsense. Copyright law exists for a reason, even if the law itself can be unreasonable. As our Sherwin Siy demonstrated a couple of weeks ago, the idea that authors can claim any royalties from a text-to-speech function is simply a half-baked notion. The Los Angeles Times called Amazon's actions a “capitulation,” a far more polite description.
The idea that a computer, or the Kindle, is “reading” a work is simply ludicrous. It is now, and will be for some time. In fact, in his appearance on the Daily Show Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos even made a point of describing the “freaky” computer voice that reads the book. Actor and author Wil Wheaton demonstrated the point by reading some of his latest novel and by having the computer read some.
Insisting on rights for the purely mechanical function of having a computer process text to voice will open up a whole new round of litigation and controversy for a technology that has been around for years.
Science fiction author John Scalzi made the right argument on his blog. The best programmer couldn’t come up with the code to allow a text-to-speech program duplicate a human performance.
That’s the key. Can it really be a “performance” when there is no performing involved? Does the computer really “read” or “perform”? Of course not. The Kindle, or the computer, has no idea what it’s doing, whether it’s translating a bit of code into sound or displaying a spreadsheet. In making that comparison, technophobic, greedy authors degrade themselves.
The ultimate answer, perhaps, lies in a place where no one would think to look: The Twilight Zone. The great Rod Serling wrote a show called The Mighty Casey. On the show, a scientist invents a robot which pitches for a forever woebegone team. When the new pitcher is beaned, the other team discovers Casey is mechanical. Asked for a ruling, the commissioner of baseball decides that the rules of the game require nine men make up a team. Casey isn’t a man, so he’s disqualified. But, the commissioner rules, give him a heart and he will become a man. So Casey is given a heart, and then has too much compassion to strike out the hitters on the other team.
When a text-to-speech program has a heart, and a soul, can convey love, fear, anger, greed, shame, sarcasm and the entire gamut of human emotion, then maybe the authors have a case that a Kindle is something other than mere data processing. Until then, they should just go away. And Amazon should be ashamed it wants to charge customers $359 and $9.99 per book and the buyers don’t even get the chance, if they wish, to hear the damn thing make some automatic noise. It’s pathetic all around. Our goal at Public Knowledge is to protect the digital rights of consumers against some of the most powerful business forces on earth. It doesn’t help when otherwise progressive companies which should know better give away the store.