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Amazon lets publishers and writers disable Kindle 2's read-aloud feature

The Authors Guild objected to device's text-to-speech function, saying Amazon doesn't have the right to essentially turn e-books into audio books.

February 28, 2009|Alana Semuels

Publishers and authors now have the power to silence the Kindle 2 e-book reader.

Amazon.com Inc. reversed course Friday on the device's controversial text-to-speech feature, which reads digital books aloud in a robotic voice. The company gave rights holders the ability to disable the feature for individual titles.

The Kindle 2, which shipped this week, is a faster and smaller version of Amazon's gadget. It can hold more than 1,500 books and has 25% more battery life than its predecessor.

But the Authors Guild objected to the text-to-speech function, saying Amazon doesn't have the right to essentially turn e-books into audio books. Guild President Roy Blount Jr., well-known for his role on the NPR quiz show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," wrote an opinion column in the New York Times denouncing the function.

"They created a hybrid product," Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, said when reached by phone late Friday. "It was being used in a way they had not been given permission for."

Amazon made it clear Friday that its reversal didn't mean it agreed with that interpretation of copyright law.

"Kindle 2's experimental text-to-speech feature is legal: no copy is made, no derivative work is created and no performance is being given," the company said. "Nevertheless, we strongly believe many rights holders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver's seat."

Ben Sheffner, a Los Angeles copyright attorney and author of the blog Copyrights & Campaigns, said Amazon probably reversed course to maintain good relationships with authors, not because of legal concerns.

Sheffner said that Amazon probably wouldn't need different rights to sell an e-book with the text-to-speech function enabled, but that book contracts could differ dramatically so there was no way to know for sure.

"I think this announcement was 95% motivated by business and relationship concerns," he said. "The copyright claims were speculative at best."

The two sides haven't completely mended their relationship yet. Aiken, of the Authors Guild, said he would have to wait to see how the changes were implemented before giving them his blessing.

Seattle-based Amazon said it had already begun to alter its systems to give publishers and authors the choice to disable the text-to-speech function, and that they could decide for themselves whether it was in their commercial interests to leave it enabled.

"We believe many will decide that it is," Amazon said.

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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