Marilynn Byerly


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Last year, Amazon announced the new Kindle 2, the second version of their extremely popular ebook reader. One of the new features was the ability to read the books aloud with a computer voice. 

Immediately, the Authors Guild expressed its unhappiness with this feature and demanded that Amazon disable it. Amazon laughed in response, and the Authors Guild threatened a lawsuit. The Authors Galso told its members to hold off assigning ebook rights in their contracts until this matter was settled.

Amazon ended up backing down, and publishers/authors can now disable the TTS feature on their Kindle books.

Since no one gave a good overview of what the issues involved meant to authors and readers, I put this article together to do so.



Marilynn Byerly


First, some definitions. 

TEXT-TO-SPEECH, TTS, OR VOICE-TO-SPEECH: A computer program that reads text aloud with a computerized voice, or the audio version of that reading. TTS programs are on all computers these days and on many PDAs, cell phones, etc. 

AUDIOBOOK: A human verbal performance of a book that is recorded digitally. This performance may be by an individual or a group of actors. Audiobooks are created by companies who contract the audio rights of the book from the author or publisher. 

COPYRIGHT: The legal protection of the ownership of intellectual property including writing. For a simple definition, go here:

For a more complex discussion of copyright, particularly publishing and copyright, check out this site by publishing lawyer, Ivan Hoffman.

RIGHTS: In publishing, rights refer to the different types of format sales for a written work. Some of the rights that can be contracted from an author are the right to publish a paperback version, a hardcover version, an ebook version, and an audio version of a work. 


The major legal problem with TTS is that it has never been clearly defined through a lawsuit or some other legal means. Right now, no one can say with legal certainty that TTS is a right on its own, a part of the audio rights, or part of the ebook rights. 

Amazon's stance was that TTS is part of the ebook rights so the Kindle can use TTS on all ebooks.

The Authors Guild's stance was that TTS is part of the audio rights so Amazon can't use TTS without a contract for audio rights.

Some authors say that TTS is a right by itself, and that, unless publishers have contracted that right, neither they nor Amazon have any right to use TTS with an ebook. 

Many of the major publishers have taken no stance because the issue is so unclear, and they use DRM (digital rights management) to prevent the ebook from being read with TTS because they don't know if they have that right. 

Some audiobook publishers are so leery of the unclear legal status of TTS that they refuse to contract a book that allows TTS in ebook format. 

With all these problems, it's easy to see why authors and the Authors Guild was so upset by Amazon's grab for TTS rights on books. If Amazon had succeeded, many authors could have lost their lucrative audio rights without payment. If TTS is a right on its own, then Amazon would have taken an author's right they hadn't paid for.

Also, TTS has improved dramatically in the last years, and in the near future, TTS programs should improve their quality until they are almost equal to a human reading. If authors don't fight to retain TTS rights now, they may lose a valuable right in the future. 

Where does this leave everyone? In a serious mess. 

The best thing that can happen for all the parties involved is that TTS rights will be finally defined legally. Since TTS rights have so little value right now, a lawsuit is highly unlikely.



A remarkable amount of nonsense and grandstanding appeared over the web on this subject, and I'd like to clarify some of these points.

* This will make reading to your kids illegal. 

No, it won't. Reading aloud to your children or privately to someone else will never be illegal. What is illegal is reading someone else's work for profit without permission. In other words, you can read A CAT IN THE HAT to your kids or a group of kids, but if you do that and charge admission without the permission of the Dr. Seuss' estate or publisher, it is illegal. It is also illegal to sell a copy of your reading if you do so without permission. 

* Publishers and authors are just being greedy. 

Asking for payment for work done isn't greedy. Authors, with just a few exceptions, don't make much money, and publishing has a very low margin of profit so the industry needs fair profit just to stay afloat. 

* This is will hurt those with visual disabilities. 

The publishing industry, both authors and publishers, allowed free audiocopies of books and large print copies of books aimed at the visually impaired long before various disabilities acts were passed, and it has remained friendly and accessible to the visually impaired. 

Right now, many ebooks have TTS cut off because of the confusion about TTS rights so a legal clarification will make more books available for TTS through the rightful contractor of those rights.

* I bought this ebook. I can do what I damn well please with it.

No, you can't. An ebook is intellectual property. When you buy a copy, you are allowed to read it, but you don't have the right to copy it and give it or sell it to others. 

Authors or publishers, however, will not chase you down and brutalize you if you read that book with TTS or print out a copy for your own personal use. 

This current controversy is about Amazon's grab for rights most publishers and authors don't believe they've contracted. It's not about individuals using TTS. 


"Cory Doctorow on the Amazon Kindle controversy." Doctorow does his usual "free books are good" spiel with little regard for the complexities of this issue.
"Legal ruckus over the Kindle." A fairly reasonable statement of the general facts of the case.
"Amazon Releases the New Kindle 2." Includes some legal issues.
"Book publishers object to Kindle's text-to-voice feature." Covers some of the legal issues involved.

"E-Book Rights Alert: Amazon's Kindle 2 Adds 'Text to Speech' Function." Authors Guild statement.
Copyright lawyer, Ben Sheffner, blogs on the controversy.
"Kindle Text-to-speech is a lot of talk." One of the better overviews of the legal questions involved. It also includes two versions, one by a TTS program and one by a human, of some text to compare the two methods.
"Know Your Rights: Does the Kindle 2's text-to-speech infringe authors' copyrights?" Ex-copyright attorney talks about the issues involved. The best overview I've seen.
"DRM White Paper AAP/ALA White Paper: What Consumers Want in Digital Rights Management," Discusses the problems of TTS for publishers and audiobook companies because it isn't adequately defined in a legal sense. No longer available online.

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