By Harry McCracken | Friday, February 27, 2009 at 11:12 pm
When it comes to thorny matters of intellectual property, my instinct is often to follow a philosophy which, as far as I can tell, almost nobody else shares. It’s a sort of creators’-rights libertarianism which you might call Let the People Who Create Stuff Make Their Own Damn Mistakes. (Possible alternative moniker: Reverse Lessigism.) The recording industry may have made almost every wrongheaded decision imaginable during the first decade 0f digital music, but hey–they’re entitled to drive their business into the ground if they so choose. And who the hell is is anyone else to angrily tell someone who created something what he can or can’t do with it?
Ultimately, I think most owners of intellectual property will eventually come to decisions that serve the people who watch, listen to, or read their works, since behaving too stupidly for too long will leave you without any customers. But it’s OK by me if creators find their own comfort level, even if it’s different from what I’d choose.
(Side note: You may well argue that it’s artists, not industries, that create things…and you’d be right. Possible fodder for the comments, or for a future post.)
All of which is a roundabout way of getting to today’s news that Amazon has responded to the Author’s’ Guild’s angst over the Kindle 2′s text-to-speech book reading feature by letting publishers decide whether the feature should be enabled on a particular book or not.
(Shameless plug: Here’s my review of the Kindle 2. I liked it–and will continue to like it even if I can’t listen to books in a surprisingly-good-but-still-robotic voice.)
The Author’s Guild maintains that the Kindle feature violates copyright by being something akin to a public performance and endangers writers’ livelihoods by competing with audiobooks; Amazon says that it’s legal and is good for the industry, but it believes “many rightsholders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver’s seat.”
(Additional side note: Engadget did a good interview with Paul Aiken of the Author’s Guild–read it for the Guild’s stance and see for yourself how good a case he makes.)
Amazon, which has done an admirable job of getting publishers on the Kindle bandwagon–to the tune of a quarter-million books to date–was obviously in a tough spot. Publishers who are uncomfortable with the Kindle might withhold rights. No books, no successful Kindle. And if the Kindle failed, it would be a huge problem for the whole nascent concept of e-books.
I do have an opinion here, and it’s pretty much the same one as my friend Steve Wildstrom of BusinessWeek: The Kindle is good for the book business, not bad, and the more cool features it has, the better. And if I’d written any books, I’d enable Kindle text-to-speech in a heartbeat. What I’d be worried about is technology allowing people to pirate books–not technology letting people who pay for books enjoy them in new ways,
But that’s me. Let the People Who Create Stuff Make Their Own Damn Mistakes, I say–even if hurts their chances of making money off their works.
(Final side note: I know at least one person who wrote two books that available both on the Kindle and in audiobook form, and whose take on this matter I’d value. She happens to be my sister, and I just dropped her a note to see what her stance is on text-to-speech.)
Okay, now for an entirely different aspect of this development. It was just weeks ago that Jeff Bezos stood on stage talking up the Kindle 2:
He talked up the text-to-speech and told prospective customers that “When you want it to, it reads to you.” Amazon is now saying, basically, that the Kindle will read to owners when the publishers want it to–even though it says that there was nothing illegal with the feature. I assume that Amazon will push out a software update that disables universal text-to-speech.
Amazon has amended its description of text-to-speech to say that it works “unless the book is disabled by the rights holder.” But the video on its Kindle page still says the feature works, period:
So here’s a question for you: Is it kosher for tech companies to yank features in products they already sold you simply because they changed their mind about whether they were such a great idea?