Amazon Backtracks on Kindle Voice Feature

Amazon Kindle 2

Amazon is rethinking its stance on the text-to-speech function in its new Kindle 2 e-book reader, saying authors and publishers critical of the feature will soon be able to block it from their works.

Yet Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) which debuted its second-generation e-reader early last month, still maintains that the feature, called “Read to Me,” does not violate licensing and copyright regulations.

The move comes as a response to criticism of the feature from portions of the publishing industry. Last month, the Authors Guild, a writer advocacy group, claimed that “Read to Me” constitutes a new literature format that allows Amazon to skirt rules around licensing book formats. E-books and audiobooks, for instance, are both licensed for compensation purposes.

But the Guild said that the text-to-speech capability of the Kindle 2 makes for a new format that is not covered under existing agreements.

Amazon said that it aims to avoid the problem by giving copyright holders the opportunity to specify whether their e-books would support the feature. The company said it’s now revamping its publishing system to enable writers, authors and publishers to disable the technology on a case-by-case basis.

“We strongly believe many rightsholders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver’s seat,” Amazon said in a statement. “With this new level of control, publishers and authors will be able to decide for themselves whether it is in their commercial interests to leave text-to-speech enabled. We believe many will decide that it is.”

But the company also stood its ground on the legality of “Read to Me”.

“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,” it said in the statement.

Amazon spokespeople were not available for further comment by press time.

The Authors Guild, meanwhile, praised Amazon’s move and said it wouldn’t be taking further action. However, it warned that the issue has not been decided permanently.

“We are relieved Amazon has taken this step,” Paul Aiken, executive director of the guild, told “Though we expect that text-to-voice will be back as a copyright issue when Kindle 3 arrives.”

Shortly after the Kindle 2’s launch, the group warned members in an e-mail that they should request that Amazon disable the feature in light of its murky copyright issues.

Despite the apparent detente with Amazon, the Guild continues to maintain its earlier stance that the text-to-speech technology could constitute a new literature format that may not fall under copyright rules and contractual agreements now protecting e-book and audiobook formats.

“I believe Amazon realized it had run into a massive contractual problem with this as many major publishers don’t include authorization of e-books into a multimedia device use,” Aiken said. “There are lots of contracts that need to be reviewed to allow text-to-voice to happen.”

While Read to Me rankled some in the publishing industry, Amazon praised the feature during the Kindle’s launch, with CEO Jeff Bezos pointing to it as an example of a capability that traditional books could never provide.

The Kindle 2’s Read to Me can be used on anything that can be read on a Kindle — including books, newspapers, magazines, blogs and personal documents. Users can select either a male or female voice, and can adjust its speed.

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