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Authors Want Amazon Kindle to Stop Talking

The Authors Guild, a writers advocacy group, is advising its members to ask Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN) to disable its Kindle 2 "Read-to-Me" feature in light of murky copyright issues with text-to-voice recording of e-books.

The guild contends the feature constitutes creation of a new literature format that would fall under copyright rules now protecting e-book and audiobook formats.

The Authors Guild sent an e-mail to members yesterday stating the feature presents a "significant challenge" to the publishing industry. Publishers can contractually stop Amazon from using the audio functionality on e-book offerings, as the e-bookseller isn't legally authorized to make such recordings, the group said.

"We are asking members to consider asking Amazon to disable the function," Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, told InternetNews.com. Aiken said the monetary value for authors and publishers related to creating a text-to-voice audio format is unknown at this point.

"But Amazon obviously thinks it has value," Aiken said.

But the e-commerce giant dismissed the complaint.

"We've looked carefully at the legality of Kindle 2's text-to-speech software, and it is clearly legal," an Amazon spokesperson told InternetNews.com. "Is it illegal to read a book out loud to yourself? Is it the case that one is only allowed to legally read if one does so silently? When you listen to yourself read out loud, you're not performing, you'd need an audience for that, and you're not making a copy."

The e-mail missive comes as the group's latest action in response to Amazon's text-to-voice technology. The Guild first raised concerns Tuesday, the day after the Kindle 2 debuted at a New York launch event headlined by horror novelist Stephen King.

At stake may be a great deal of money. A recent Citigroup reportpredicts the e-commerce giant will rake in $1.2 billion in 2010 from sales related to its Kindle e-reader. Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney has described the device as "The iPod of the Book World," likening it to the phenomenally successful Apple's portable music player. If accurate, Citigroup's revenue forecast of $1.2 billion would increase Amazon's annual revenues by 4 percent, according to Mahaney.

The debate also comes at a time when tech players are aiming to expand e-content services and features to mobile device users.

Last week, Google launched a mobile version of Google Book Search, providing 1.5 million public domain books to readers on the go. That effort came four months after the search giant settled a multi-million copyright dispute tied to a digital book effort four years ago.

Google had been sued by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers for infringing on authors works. As part of its settlement Google will build a $34.5-million "Book Rights Registry" to help locate rights holders and ensure that they receive the money their works earn under the Google agreement.

The Amazon Kindle Read-to-Me feature, powered by Nuance technology, lets users switch from reading to listening without losing their place in the book. Users can choose a male or female voice and adjust the audio speed. It can be used on anything that can be read on a Kindle, including books, newspapers, magazines, blogs and personal documents.

In a statement released at the launch event, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the new function exemplifies a feature that a book can never provide.

The guild doesn't argue with that contention, but it contends that the feature demands copyright review.

"Until this issue is worked out, Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books," the Guild e-mail states. The group said Amazon can disable the feature by adding a software tag to e-book files until Amazon has acquired an e-book's audio rights.

Amazon, in dismissing the copyright issue, noted that it's already a major participant in the recorded audiobook business through its subsidiary Audible -- and that Kindle doesn't really overstep the two businesses' boundaries. Instead, an Amazon spokesperson said the company hopes that sales of one will fuel the other.

"We're excited about Kindle 2's potential to accelerate and grow customer demand for professionally recorded audiobooks," the spokesperson said. "Kindle 2's text-to-speech software provides a completely different experience from a professionally recorded audiobook ... We're passionate about the future and the possibilities that embracing technology can bring to authors and rights-holders everywhere."

While the technology is not as high in quality as are audiobook recordings, the guild still claims that it will improve rapidly and could one day provide the same audio quality now used by those publishers.

The guild is also recommending that publishers include text-to-speech technology in their future contract negotiations over e-books, and that they delay granting e-book rights until the issue is resolved.

"Bundling e-books and audio books has been discussed for a long time in the industry. It's a good idea, but it shouldn't be accomplished by fiat by an e-book distributor," according to the guild e-mail.

Update adds comments from Amazon.