Hush Hush, Mein Kindle

As everyone knows by now, Amazon is poised to bring out Kindle 2 in the U.S. Apart from its other features, the Kindle 2 can read — out loud. This is, of course, no more than any competent computer can do nowadays, and in tones that are increasingly lifelike. But this ability to speak a book worries the American Authors Guild, which opines that an act of turning text to speech might violate copyright, or, more precisely, impinge on an author’s “e-book rights.”

(Most commentary you’ll read on this — WSJ, Boing Boing, and those quoted in the DigitalKoans piece — scoffs at the Guild’s claims and to some extent misrepresents them as being clearly opposed, when their only statement on the matter says that they’re studying the thing.)

Oddly, perhaps, I’d never considered whether under Canadian law a book-talking machine would infringe the rights of a copyright holder who had only licensed a digitized print version. Nor am I aware of whether copyright lawyers now routinely fraction things in a licensing situation so finely that one could deal separately with print, digital text on a screen, and text-to-speech; though I assume there’s no reason why the thing couldn’t be diced as fine as this and even finer.

Clearly, if I read a book out loud to an audience in return for money, a book to which I don’t have the copyright, I’ve infringed the owner’s right. And Canadian legislation suggests further that if that reading is performed by a machine instead of viva voce, that, too, would infringe the owner’s rights:

3. (1) For the purposes of this Act, “copyright”, in relation to a work, means the sole right to produce or reproduce the work or any substantial part thereof in any material form whatever, to perform the work or any substantial part thereof in public or, if the work is unpublished, to publish the work or any substantial part thereof, and includes the sole right…

(c) in the case of a novel or other non-dramatic work, or of an artistic work, to convert it into a dramatic work, by way of performance in public or otherwise,
(d) in the case of a literary, dramatic or musical work, to make any sound recording, cinematograph film or other contrivance by means of which the work may be mechanically reproduced or performed

and to authorize any such acts

Of course, this doesn’t answer the question Kindle 2 would face, because Amazon would have acquired the copyright in one form or another, and the issue would be, I suppose, a contractual one of what the license actually conveyed. Then, too, there’s the issue of when a reading is a performance and when it’s simply a (licit) private act. As well there’s the claim that a machine reading is clearly different from a recording of a person’s reading, a claim which is becoming more and more dubious as the quality of text-to-speech improves.

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