Sunday, 8 March 2009

Kindle 2 and Audio Rights

Wherein I wax eloquent.

You did know The Enchanted Faerie is available on Amazon in the Kindle format? Good. Go forth and purchase.

(Note: I am not an agent, a publisher or a lawyer. I am a published writer. I have a BA in Film and have worked in the film and sound industries. I have researched what rights are concerning creative works and have a vague clue as to what they mean. While I may not know everything I do know something. Also, I have worked at a blind school and I currently work at a library. The availability of literature to all is important to me. Now you know where I am coming from.)

So the new Kindle has the capability of displaying written text "out loud" (ie, it "reads it to you").

A some people are up in arms over it, claiming that it's "stealing their audio rights" and they want to be compensated for those rights.

I say it's not stealing any rights at all.

In a book contract, when they say audio rights, it usually means the rights to create a sound based on the written text and record that sound. It is almost always a vocal reading of the work (but may not be limited to just that). That recording is what is covered by audio rights. (The generation of a written work as a sound (ie someone reading aloud) which is then shown live is covered by public performance rights.)

Now, say you have an electronic device that is capable of taking written text and displaying it in a format other than pixels on a screen. Why would it need this capability? Possibly because there are many, many people who cannot read text on a screen. I'm not talking about people who prefer printed material to electronic material, but people who, for whatever reason, are physically incapable of reading text, printed, electronic or otherwise.

The blind cannot read computer monitors. Are they to be discriminated against because of their physical disability?

The voice capabilities on electronic devices such as a computer or the Kindle are not there to steal away the audio rights of a few, but to provide an alternative access to written text for those who are unable to read printed (or electronically displayed) text.

Visually impaired people currently suffer a certain level of inconvenience and prejudice within the publishing industry. Most books printed are only printed in one format, a book printed in a "regular-sized" font. It is not until later that some books are printed in a large size font or recorded as an audio book (sometimes called a "book on tape" or "book on CD").

A Braille version? Yeah, right. These are few and far between, and only if the initial book sells "well enough" to "justify" printing a braille version. Few publishers can justify the cost. It is very rare that a Braille version of a book is released simultaneously as the first print run, so when it happens, it makes the headlines.

Large print books are a little more expensive than their hardcopy regular print counterparts, but a Braille version and an audio book version are a lot more expensive, roughly three to five times the price of the original hardcopy.

This is dreadfully unfair, but that is due to production costs.

Recently (as in the past couple of decades or so, as opposed to the few centuries since Gutenberg invented the printing press or a few thousand years since the Egyptians invented paper), they've invented these cool devices called "computers" with the ability to take basic ASCII text and convert it to sounds that sound close enough to human speech for a human to recognise the text. (For the English language, this is no mean feat as English spelling is not exactly phonetic.)

Microsoft Windows and Mac OS have this capability, and no doubt somewhere someone has written a bit of Linux to do the same thing. (Simon Haynes wrote a little Windows-based application called yRead that works marvellously with .txt files from Project Gutenberg. The display of text through a sound device (like a speaker) without pre-recording it is not a new concept.)

The audio capabilities of a Kindle to read text aloud is a brilliant breakthrough for visually impaired people. Finally, the blind are closer to equal footing when it comes to books. No more having to wait months or years for a Braille or an audio book, then paying exhorbitant prices for them... that is assuming a Braille or audio book version comes out.

Now any Mister Magoo with a Kindle can buy an eBook for half the price of a print book and listen to it!

Do you know how liberating that is?

Now, it may seem that the Kindle is dominating the market, but I can assure you that other e-readers will soon come out with the same text-to-voice capabilities. I say it's about time that sort of technology became freely available. My little blind Second Graders from 1991 (now grown adults) are probably shrieking for joy at the thought that they have easy access to a whole lotta books that were previously denied them. They always loved their stories. (I'm looking at you, John Lipsey!)

So, is the current situation with text-to-speech on the Kindle infringing on audio rights?

I'm gonna plant myself in the "No, it's not" camp for now, mostly because I see the text-to-speech Kindle as the gateway technology that will open the whole of modern literature to the visually-impaired and others who may not, for some reason, be able to read text off a screen. (And yes, I think that would include people driving their car to work.)

Like with the introduction of all new info-storing technology, the rights associated with books (fiction and non-fiction) need to be redefined. An electronic book right should include not only the right to be displayed on a screen but also in a text-to-speech format and even on a Braille displayer. (You know, like the one you saw in the movie Sneakers?) These display formats should not be listed as separate rights. Rights have a habit of being separated and not sold. I believe that the separation of display rights would be discriminatory.

So you lovely new Kindle 2 owners, go buy a copy of The Enchanted Faerie in Kindle format and listen to it with aplomb. Just don't record the text-to-speech output. That would be the audio version of photocopying a book.

Literature should be available to all at equal cost, regardless of their handicaps. The blind and the not-fully-literate are at enough of a financial disadvantage without having the additional burden of expensive Braille and audio versions of books, not to mention the social disadvantage

Technology like the Kindle with its text-to-speech recognition levels the playing field a bit more. I wanna see that.