An Open Letter to Roy Blount, Jr. on the Occasion of Him Speaking Like a Dinosaur

By James Turner
February 25, 2009 | Comments: 7

The author Roy Blount, Jr., just took to the pages of the New York Times, arguing that the audio capabilities of the Kindle violates his intellectual property rights. My resonse....

Dear Mr. Blount,

I've been a long-time fan of yours, at least in your persona as a Wait, Wait panelist. To my shame, I have not encountered your written works. That is, at least until I read your recent commentary about the Kindle. It was an unfortunate introduction.

One of the more detestable follies that the recording industry has attempted was to try and convince the public that purchasing a CD or tape, and then transferring it to an MP3 player, was either illegal or immoral. We've seem how successful that tack was for them... In a similar vein, you seem to be arguing that purchasing an electronic copy of a book on a Kindle should allow me only to read the print on the screen, that anything more is a violation of your intellectual property.

This argument fails on several levels. For one, it assumes that people really will use the Kindle as a substitute for audio books. Frankly, as good as text to speech might get, I'll still pay the extra money (as a loyal Audible subscriber of many years) to hear Johanna Parker read Charlaine Harris' Suki Stackhouse novels, because until we have true artificial intelligence, there's no way a computer is going to know what to read in a sassy sarcastic tone, and what to read in a panicked tone. Part of the pleasure of a good audio book is the added flavor that they narrator brings to the product.

You're also falling prey to the "that's how it's always been, so that's the way it should always be" argument. I've never had the pleasure of negotiating audio rights to a book (I shudder to think what a Java Development book would sound like in spoken form...), but I imagine it follows the same formula as print, a percentage of net. Since an audio book is typically twice the cost of a hardcover, the financial benefit to the author is obvious. But that's solely an artifact of the cost of audio books. If tomorrow, audio book prices came down to those of a hardcover or paperback, the financial differential to the author between the two would vanish.

You could as easily argue that paperbacks should be banned, since they represent less money to the author. And really, the real villain here is the publishing system itself. The fact that I get $2 in compensation for a $30 book is what stinks, and what needs to be fixed. Rather than look at the Kindle as the End of the Author, look at it as a chance to exercise disintermediation of the publishing system. With electronic publishing, the entire model of sending dead trees to stores, and having the book covers (or, as I'm told these days, an affidavit of destruction) sent back becomes a dinosaur. If you were getting 50% of net, would you care nearly as much if it ended up being read or listened to?

At the heart of it, your basic fault of logic is in assuming that "audio rights" need to be paid at all if a Kindle "reads" a book. As you point out, if I were to read book to my child, I wouldn't need to pay audio rights. If, today, I were to scan the pages of a book into my computer, and then use the text to speech software in most operating systems to read it to me, I wouldn't need to pay audio rights (or at least I hope you're not arguing such, for that way lies the madness of the RIAA trying to tell me what to do with my own personal copy of a work.) The Kindle makes this process easier, but at the end of the day, it is still a one-time, non-physical spoken private performance of the work, not a physical transcription of the work offered commercially.

Finally, you ignore the fact that should be most important to you. The Kindle doesn't take food out of your mouth, it puts food in. My personal guess is that the effect of the Kindle on audio book sales will be negligible, for just the reasons I listed above, but because the Kindle makes it so much easier to buy a book on impulse, whereever you may be, it will almost certainly help increase overall sales.

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Anyone who listens to the Kindle's text-to-speech should quickly realize that it is not a replacement for audiobooks. It is quite good, as far as T2S goes, but it's nothing that a person could listen to long term. Listen to a sample of the female and male voices here and see for yourself.

No fair-minded person could honestly consider an electronic, synthesized screen reader to be a derivative work. It's just reading with your ears instead of reading with your eyes.

As far as the assertion that the visually-impaired couldn't independently operate Kindle's controls, I offer this. I can work Kindle just fine, but it always takes two or three tries to get the darn "Captcha" letters right. Dyslexics like to read, too!

Excellent points made here. But you miss the accessibility argument against the blind. How ignorant is Roy that he does not realize that blindness is not binary, but rather a continuum. Being legally blind with functional vision, I look forward to supplementing my low vision glasses with some text-to speech while reading the Kindle 2. I have long enjoyed audiobooks, but look forward to the change to read again. The Kindle 2 now has both scalable font (not quite enough for me to read without glasses) and the text to speech feature.

Now Roy wants to take that away from me, relegating me back to the world of blind-only devices and tiny-fonted iPods.

Thanks, Roy! I am so glad you need those extra pennies.

My opinion is that the Kindle will have *massive* impact on the audio-book market — positive one. Most people have not herd of e-books or audio-books yet, or at least (rightfully) assume those are geeky things (and are wrong to thing geeky things are not cool).

Why? Because, as pointed out by Dan Ariely (Nobel Prize in Economics in 2011; I wish ;^) if you make buyers compare A & B, two things very different, they end up confused, and buying none — but if you offer a customer an easy comparison, say A’, very similar to A, but obviously crappier, they'll flock to A, the "best" solution. By offering a crappy audio version, Kindle generates a fantastic demand for audio-books. The best way to leverage it? Include an "Buy this as an audio-book by [Great actor]" when the Kindle is doing text-to-speech (include a photo of said actor). 35$ to stop the annoying mechanical version will seem very cheap to anyone.

As Anderseen said on Charlie Rose recently: Piracy? That's the easiest thing to monetize! Just put a "Buy this" button next to it.

The profits will be so insane that I'm ready to bet that Roy Blunt Jr. will have Bezos' head tatooed on his chest within three months.

Right on. When I buy a work, I'm buying a copy of the information, not that particular form of information. If I want to buy a book, I can do whatever I damn well please with it. I can scan it and have it electronically tattooed on the inside of my stomach for later reading via a camera I can swallow if I want to. To hell with people like Blount. It's people like him that advocate for perpetual copyright and stupid sledgehammer laws like the DMCA.

Just because you can think of a new way to make money with intellectual property doesn't mean you have a right to do so, or that it is even moral. Amazon's text to speech is morally equivalent to a bundled or even downloaded tts application on a home pc. After all, the Kindle is basically a PC. It has a CPU, storage and memoy. It runs Linux based operating system.

The ability to use text to speech benefits many people with disabilities other than visual impairments.
People with high frequency hearing loss can use Kindle2s' text to speech to support their ability to follow the written text. you cannot do that with audio books.
Mr Blount my be a humorist but his hysterical attack on a much needed tool to expand access to reading for all those with special needs is no the least bit amusing.

I didn't read Mr. Blount's article, and I certainly agree with what's written here. Kindle's T2S isn't infringing on anyone's rights. However, I am guessing an underlying issue here is that people like Mr. Blount and other writers get even less per sale of a Kindle eBook than they do from a paperback. I love Amazon and really (really really really really) want to buy a Kindle, but I think Amazon is probably being too greedy with their control over and profits from the content they're now able to sell using their exclusive device. But I'm (perhaps naively) trusting capitalism and the markets to even things out in the long run - it will be a while before we have enough experience with the new regime to know what changes need to be made so that valuable artists such as Mr. Blount can be adequately paid for their work while also assuring that the widest possible audience can enjoy their work.

So ridiculous how many things lawyers and businesses try to prevent us from doing with stuff we pay for. Next I won't be able to read my book I paid for out loud because of copyright violations for fear that someone might hear it.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Maxi Sound

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