Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Adorable Authors' Guild wages futile war on text-to-speech technology

Few things are more adorably self-righteous or toxic to policy and discourse than a misguided, uninformed organization with the utmost confidence in their cause. In matters of intellectual property, things gets even crazier when artificial concepts of ownership of information get pushed into the real world.

The Roy Blount-led Authors' Guild is no stranger to this sort of thing - in October of last year they sued Google for their revolutionary Book Search feature, a service which allows users to search for keywords within books without having access to the full text. Never mind the benefit of the service or the fact that the full text of the books were still unavailable (meaning that, barring some review, Google most likely qualified under Fair Use law and encouraged users to seek out the books rather than just read them online) - the Guild threw a legal temper tantrum and eventually agreed to a megamillion-dollar payout, a small percentage of which were given to authors. I guess when massive amounts of cash are concerned, it doesn't matter when enforcing copyright law and protecting writers' profits are not the same thing.

Now the Guild is making an adorable stink over an online service that reads e-books aloud through text-to-speech technology, BoingBoing Gadgets reports:

Kindle 2's flagship feature is the reading of text out loud, in the same way as software that's already built into desktop computers and Prof. Stephen Hawking's famous voice box. This has caused a "stir." Paul Aiken, executive director of the Author's Guild, told the Wall Street Journal that you have no right to use this feature. It's a free audiobook, see.

They don't have the right to read a book out loud," said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. "That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law."

An Amazon spokesman noted the text-reading feature depends on text-to-speech technology, and that listeners won't confuse it with the audiobook experience. Amazon owns Audible, a leading audiobook provider.

What's the point of fighting a pointless fight just for legal technicalities? Limiting convenient consumer options for absolutely no reason (a computer voice does not duplicate nor replace the role of an audiobook) when people are eager to add free functionality to your product is shortsighted and miserly, less like protecting your rights than spitting in somebody's coffee. Rob Beschizza sums up the concept nicely:

Ideas grow to fill the containers they imply, and the problem with bad ideas is that their containers are leaky and misshapen. Even if you firmly believe in broad copyright laws, intellectual property is a bad idea because it recasts a legal device as its own philosophical justification. This journey from the utilitarian to the exalted creates a sublime monster that can't help but govern not only the duplication of things, but every aspect of their expression and the culture that makes them meaningful.

The alternative is a set of obnoxious, unintuitive loopholes the like of which I found online in this totally real example:

Authors' Guild claims text-to-speech software is illegal (BoingBoing)

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