Amazon has caved into demands from the Authors Guild that it disable the ability of the Kindle to read a book aloud. This is very bad news.
We had this battle before. In 2001, Adobe released e-book technology that gave rights holders (including publishers of public domain books) the ability to control whether the Adobe e-book reader read the book aloud. The story got famous when it was shown that one of its public domain works — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — was marked to forbid the book to be read aloud. (Here’s a piece I wrote about this in 2001).
Now the issue is back. The Authors Guild has objected because Amazon’s Kindle 2 has a function built in that enables the book to be read aloud. So when, for example, you’re commuting, you can plug your Kindle 2 into your MP3 jack and have the book read aloud.
Amazon rightly argued that this did not violate any of the exclusive rights granted by copyright law to the copyright owners. In that, Amazon is exactly right. But nonetheless, it will now enable publishers to decide whether the Kindle books they sell will permit the book to be read aloud. And of course, that includes public domain books.
So here we go again — How long till we can buy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and be told that this book “cannot be read aloud”?
But the bigger trend here is much more troubling: Innovative technology company (Amazon (Kindle 2), Google (Google Books)) releases new innovative way to access or use content; so-called “representatives” of rights owners, Corleone-like, baselessly insist on a cut; innovative technology company settles with baseless demanders, and we’re all arguably worse off.
We’re worse off with the Kindle because if the right get set by the industry that publishers get to control a right which Congress hasn’t given them — the right to control whether I can read my book to my kid, or my Kindle can read a book to me — users and innovators have less freedom. And we may be worse off with Google Books, because (in ways not clear when the settlement was first reported) the consequence of the class action mechanism may well disable users and innovators from doing what fair use plainly entitled Google to do.