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Kindle Text to Speech

peachtess asked what I thought about the Kindle2 Text to Speech drama. In brief, Amazon's Kindle 2 includes the ability to read a document out loud. The Authors Guild states that this falls under audio rights, and is therefore s a contractual violation, since audio rights are separate from electronic (e-book) rights. Amazon has since backed down.

I don't see this as a simple black and white matter where one side is right and the other is wrong. Authors struggle to hold on to rights; for those of us who make part of all of our living at this game, those rights are how we feed the kids and pay our mortgages. And Amazon hasn't always been known for playing nice. Some of you may recall how they threw their weight around when they launched their self-publishing business.

Let me also state that I'm not a lawyer. I can tell you what I think, but in the end what matters is the contract and the terms thereof. If text to speech violates a clause in the contract, that's a problem, regardless of whether I think it's a big deal.

With all that said, I'm not too worried about it. An audio book is a performance. I listened to Jim Dale reading the Harry Potter books years ago. (They were my workout books.) That was much more than a voice simply reading me the words on the page. Dale performed that book, often doing a better job than the actors in the film version. This is why audio books are recorded in studios, and are (generally) read by professionals.

Some have pointed out that text-to-speech is a huge boon to the disabled. I agree, but I'm not sure how relevant that is. There's a standard clause in contracts allowing royalty-free audio books to be produced for the blind. Nobody's trying to take that away. If I posted a closed-captioned edition of the new Star Trek movie on my web site and Paramount insisted I take it down, it wouldn't make sense for me to argue that my edition allows the deaf to enjoy the movie, and why does Paramount hate deaf people. (Don't know how well that analogy works, but hopefully it gets the gist.)

On the other hand, the Kindle edition is more accessible, and would make it much easier for my blind friend to enjoy Stepsister Scheme...

I haven't heard the Kindle speech, but I'm told it's better than the synthesized voices of years ago. I know my GPS speaks pretty darn well, for the most part. But that's still a far cry from a human performance. To me, Kindle's text-to-speech function is not the same thing as an audio book*. They're two different beasts, and I don't see it as a huge deal.

I do think this is an area where technology will continue to advance, and the writing business needs to adjust our contracts to keep up. When e-books first started popping up, some publishers tried to claim all e-book rights because the contracts simply weren't written to cover those rights, rights that hadn't existed at all a short time before. As technology advances, agents and publishers and writers need to make sure we all keep up.

So while I could be mistaken and I expect things to continue changing, right now I'm not too worried about this particular issue.

*This is a personal opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the legal technicalities or the contractual details of the rights involved.


( 37 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 3rd, 2009 06:34 pm (UTC)
Why aren't people up in arms about sony reader's text to speech or microsoft reader's text to speech? it's more an accessiblity option for those who need it.

I find the whole debate ridiculous. audiobooks are professionally prepared entities that use music, hire good readers, etc. an Electronic voice that most of the time misreads is NOT the same.

This issue just about drives me insane that Amazon would even back down on it. Stupid!
Mar. 3rd, 2009 06:41 pm (UTC)
I can ask my Mac to read things to me, if I want (I don't, generally). Is that an infringement?

Also, Wil Wheaton recorded himself and the Kindle reading part of his new book (just so you know what the Kindle sounds like. Oddly, I don't, because I haven't listened to it yet).
Mar. 3rd, 2009 06:47 pm (UTC)
My Mac reads to me, too. If the Kindle 2 sounds anything like my Mac, it is a flat, emotionless voice that doesn't pronounce every word right (really, deluge is a real word and there's no reason for deli-uge), and is actually very boring to listen to.

(Deleted comment)
Mar. 3rd, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC)
My GPS is fun to listen to, just because it's so entertaining to hear how it struggles with certain street names.

I'm told that gets especially fun when you're driving around Hawaii.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
I would imagine there are certain areas in Los Angeles (CaHUEnga, TaHUNga, and Van Ness [Cahuenga, Tujunga, and Van Nuys]) that would be pretty entertaining, too.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
I always love getting email notification from LJ on an anonymous comment:

"Someone has replied to your comment."

I don't know why this amuses me, but it does.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
"I can ask my Mac to read things to me, if I want (I don't, generally). Is that an infringement?"

Technically speaking? I don't know. I wouldn't think of it as such, but I'd have to do a very close reading of the contracts involved, the rights being licensed, and so on to say for certain.

It's not something I'd spend any time worrying about, myself...
Mar. 3rd, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)
Fair enough - it just crossed my mind to wonder.

Of course, my Mac usually only reads to me when I accidentally press the wrong combination of buttons and then spend five minutes trying to figure out how to make the annoying voice go away, but.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
It's a good question. As I understand it, that tool on a PC or Mac is specifically designed as an accessibility tool. I think the Kindle function was supposed to be marketed as more. But if the end result is the same, is there any difference legally?

I don't know, and this is one of the reasons I became a writer instead of a lawyer or an agent :-)
Mar. 3rd, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
Technically speaking, text to speech isn't creating a new copy of your work, so rights and contracts probably haven't been violated. It reads an existing text document out loud. The speech is not preserved as it's own recording; only the text remains, which the listener has paid for. Whether they read it on the Kindle or listen to TTS, either way your reader has paid for a copy of the book.

Will current TTS technology hurt sales of separately produced audio performances of books? I suspect people who truly appreciate audio books will still want a real reading.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
I really wouldn't be worried about Text to Speech. Yes, it's improving all the time, but frankly not nearly as much as people seem to believe. My 1980's Commodore Amiga could do text to speech which, while certainly is worse than today's standards, was not by all that much. And I'm pretty sure that my friend's TI99 in the early 1980's had a Text to Speech program on it. Again, not great, but still, this is technology that is well over three decades old, and still has major obstacles to overcome.

I think we're so used to the pace of change when it comes to computers, that we forget that there are actually some things out there that people do better than computers, and for reasons that aren't easily replicable in a tiny portable device.

We think. We do not compute. We can interpret not merely letters into sounds, but comprehension of the words to add nuance, and intonation. We can add edgy nerves to a phrase, because we understand by context from two paragraphs ago that the speaker is frightened, even if the text itself never mentions it.

All that, and I'm not even getting into the difference a real voice actor makes over an ordinary person.

It's not to say that it will never be possible for tecnology to catch up, and to do all that, but that its a bit further off than people sometimes assert.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC)
Actually, I think that if Amazon can already add some kind of tag to enable the publishers/authors to control the T2S feature, then they could with only a bit more work add another tag/flag that would override such in the case of a person with a registered disability. Now, the question of whether its legal to provide that as a feature...I have no clue, but it would be a way to somewhat eat the virtual cake, and have it too.
Aug. 31st, 2009 03:23 am (UTC)
Disability Issues
I am dyslexic and purchased my Kendil so it could read to me.

I was very disappointed when the text-to-speech started to disappear. I work in the computer industry. I have spoken with Tim O'Reilly several times to make audio books. He has refused based on expense vs. income.

Text-to-Speech costs nothing for books that have no market for audio versions but would allow people like myself greater access to the knowledge that would better my live.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:20 pm (UTC)
product format versus access function
Quality of an audio performance versus audio interpretation isn't the real issue. There is no violation going on here, and the AG is wrong. They simply hope to intimidate manufacturers. Much as I would do the same under certain circumstances, those circumstances do not exist in this situation. Text-to-speech has been around for a decade or more; it's just that the AG has suddenly woken up to the fact. Such software is available for almost any electronic device that can display text as text rather than needing a purely graphic format. I've even see freeware and donationware for this. That's right, Kindle isn't doing anything new or innovative at all.

The book is not being distributed in audio format. Claiming that a device interpreting written text into sound constitutes an alternative format will never hold up in court... if it gets that far. The true issue, the only possible issue, is if a Kindle translates the book into an alternative audio file... and that's not the way true text-to-speech works. That is the only ground the AG has to stand on, and I'll bet it is false.

Personally, I can see some concern, but this is an inevitable evolutionary step for the electronic book that was taken nearly a decade ago. And on the whole, I support it. Many people in our ever accelerating society have less time to read... or give it up in favor of more convenient forms of information - and entertainment. Anything that helps them work around these and other limitations to have access to a text should not be impeded if the texts is legally acquired in a textual format.

As someone with a rare vision condition from birth that could have (might still) render me legally blind someday, I take severe exception with the AG... even as an author. Aside from mentioned considerations, anyone with a broader perspective would take issues with commercially based limitations that overstep the actual facts, and produce limitations for those with lifestyle or physical challenges.

Waiting for commercially produced audio formats is no longer necessary; any law forcing that in the face of current (past) technology on the basis of commercial considerations is not to be tolerated. And I will support any counter action against such instituted laws and/or rulings. If no alternative format of the books data is created by the Kindle (and likely it isn't, since I've used text-to-speech software), then it is legal... and a boon to those who need it.

I'll be happy no matter how someone accesses my book when bought legally. They still bought it, and they're actually reading it, one way or another. The AG needs to wake up. Even if they succeed, they will lose authors money, not gain it.

So what's next? Do we also starting making claims against e-reader units that can translate between languages? Guess what... it already exists, though like T-to-S over the last decade, it still needs refinement. And regardless that machine transliteration will never match a professional translator's work... its coming, and it will spread to include e-books.

Edited at 2009-03-03 07:29 pm (UTC)
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)
Re: product format versus access function
Much older than one decade.

As I've stated above, my Commodore Amiga purchased in the late 1980's (and I still own) could do Text to Speech. My friend in the early 80's had a TI-99 that could do an even rougher version of the same thing.

This isn't even CLOSE to being new technology.

My Microsoft Office 2003 software can do it. Macs of all flavors have been doing it for decades.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)
Re: product format versus access function
Bravo! I wasn't fully aware it was that old. (I'm working at the moment and didn't have time to get through all previous comments).

To be honest, I find AG an embarassment to authors for the way they are handling this with such tunnel vision... dinosaurs!

And thank goodness for the next wave in translation-ware. Otherwise there are certain rare Mandarin text I could have never accessed (even stilted machine translation was better than nothing).

Edited at 2009-03-03 07:44 pm (UTC)
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:48 pm (UTC)
Re: product format versus access function
You mean "All your base are belong to us" isn't the correct translation?
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
Re: product format versus access function
LOL!!! ASIDE: I haven't always agreed with the way Amazon has done business. They are bullies at times... but this time they haven't done anything wrong... if the file issue isn't at stake.

Edited at 2009-03-03 07:54 pm (UTC)
Mar. 3rd, 2009 08:28 pm (UTC)
Re: product format versus access function
I would agree. Amazon is hardly an innocent company. They aren't afraid of throwing their not inconsiderable weight around to make things happen their way.

It's a tough spot, because when they do things right, it's a great thing to have that weight behind it to help move things forward. But when they get it wrong...hoo boy, the momentum can crush people. And that's why, even though I would tend to disagree with the AG on this particular instance, I can't really fault them for standing up for authors' rights.

Frankly, they managed to get Amazon to back down, when I didn't think they could.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)
There's a standard clause in contracts allowing royalty-free audio books to be produced for the blind. Nobody's trying to take that away.

In another discussion I've been following, blind individuals have been pointing out that the royalty-free audio books produced for them are very few in number, and must be played on special equipment. So it isn't like they're already covered just fine, thanks; their selection is currently quite limited.

Me, I am not up in arms over the whole thing, for the exact reason you said: an audiobook is a performance, and much different than an auto-rendered recitation.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 08:09 pm (UTC)
True. The friend I mentioned was unable to read my first book until I provided her with a plain-text copy that her computer could read, specifically because only a fraction of books go through that formatting process.

I think it's a separate argument, and a way to confuse the issue. But ignoring the other factors, I wouldn't mind my books being much more accessible to blind readers who purchased a copy from Amazon for the Kindle. I think that would be a good thing.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
Heck, in order to hear it in the Kindle, they'd have to BUY THE BOOK.

Yes it's a Good Thing. You'd sell another copy of the book!
Mar. 3rd, 2009 08:31 pm (UTC)
I was going to make a similar comment. My grandmother went blind in her 70s from macular degeneration. She got books from the Institute for the Blind, but the majority of them were abridged, which drove her insane, and the selection was very limited.

Something like the text to speech function of the Kindle would have been a Godsend for her. The performance of audio books actually annoyed her. She wanted the words, not the acting.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC)
This seems like a pretty good spot to plug http://librivox.org/ - they're public domain works, so they're certainly not new, current bestsellers, but I love having access to the classics like this. I download librivox recordings for cleaning around the house and whatnot.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 08:40 pm (UTC)
Why is it suddenly a problem for the Kindle to have text-to-speech capacity when it isn't for a PC or Mac? That capacity has been around for literally years and years. It's built into some popular packages, and it's available separately in a wide spectrum of flavors from freeware to very expensive full-accessibility packages.

That's a far cry from the special restricted tape & disk formats that the books-for-the-blind are required to use in order to qualify for the exemption that IIRC is built into the copyright act.

Why hasn't the AG gone after the thousands of people who use text-to-speech to read their PC screens? Accessibility isn't just a books-for-the-blind issue. There are many people with visual disabilities, including legally blind, that can "see to some extent" but require assistance with computer screens. I know one person who has used text to speech for over a decade to read the screen for him. It's worlds faster and easier than reading via "enlarge every letter to about 4" high" that he has to use otherwise. It stinks from an enjoyment standpoint, but then he again he's said it's not as if the peer review he's doing for a professional journal is losing anything in the translation, "unlike Shakespeare or something INTERESTING". LOL.

The speech-quality thing of text-to-speech isn't really an issue here. It may stink now, but over time it'll get better. It's still the same single voice simply sounding out what is fed into it. When the NWS switched to text-to-speech for reading warnings, we called it "Mr Roboto", and over time it did improve to became less in-your-face about being a computer. It's no substitute for the *performance* that is done -- AND RECORDED aka satisfying the 'fixative' requirement of the Act -- by bona fide audio books.

If the menus had been speech-readable, the Kindle would be a fantastic device for the blind. Wiki alone ... nevermind the whole new vista of books they could BUY and listen to without having to without having to request it from the volunteer read-for-blind group and wait weeks or months for a response.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC)
Couldn't there be an opt-in for people with disabilities? Send a little note of some sort and they could enable that part of the Kindle for you?

Surely this is not technologically difficult to do.

Edited at 2009-03-03 10:07 pm (UTC)
Mar. 3rd, 2009 10:10 pm (UTC)
Hee! At one point I was having a debate with myself over whether or not a chunk of dialogue sounded clunky. I mean, it looked okay on the page, but I had the feeling that hearing those phrases aloud would sound weird and cringeworthy. Reading them myself didn't really help - I already knew what the words were.

So rather than asking my husband or any of my friends to read it aloud to me, which I would have been embarassed about, I decided to use my word processor's text-to-speech function.

...I can definitively say that did NOT make my dialogue sound LESS clunky!! I laughed really hard for a couple seconds and then turned it right off!
Mar. 3rd, 2009 10:27 pm (UTC)
Well, if memory serves me correctly, your Adobe pdf reader already has a speech to text function (View, read out loud, pick page or document) The voice is very robotic, but ...
Mar. 4th, 2009 12:59 am (UTC)
It's nice to see a level head enter the mix of this discussion. I have no Kindle so it doesn't really matter what features the thing has. However, IF I had a Kindle, I doubt I'd use that feature. I love audio books. Jim Dale and Todd McLaren bring books to life. Having a GPS-like voice read to me wouldn't be the same. And I certainly would pay for it. I can understand that the visually impaired would like this feature. And that's great. That's why I think Amazon should leave it in there.

I guess for me it breaks down like this:

GPS-voice reading a book = no $ = no copyright infringement
Human voice reading a book = $$$ = copyright protected
Mar. 4th, 2009 01:37 am (UTC)
Yeah. As a special ed teacher, it pretty much breaks down the same way for me. I don't see the reason for all the drama--I'm now working on getting text to speech going for some of my kids.
Mar. 4th, 2009 03:03 am (UTC)
Like others, I don't understand why the Author's Guild is more concerned with the Kindle reading books aloud than people's PCs and Macs doing the same thing with eBooks people download to their computers. In fact, it would seem that that sets an important precedent, legally, so I don't think Amazon should have folded so easily. I'm also irked because I am acquainted with a number of people who rely on screen readers for pretty much ALL of their reading, due to the outrageous cost of Braille books and professionally-recorded audio books. However, due to the cost of the Kindle, they will probably continue to purchase eBooks for their computers, not a Kindle, and just continue to use their screen readers. Amazon really shot themselves in the foot on this one, IMO, but I guess the members of the Author's Guild outnumber blind readers and owners of the Kindle. I'm not really surprised, sadly.
Mar. 4th, 2009 03:21 am (UTC)
Thanks for the reply!

I don't think the accessibility argument fits as the device doesn't have text-to-speech menus from what I've heard. So it can't be argued that its a accessibility function. The PC and Mac escape any questions about copyright by the function being there purely for accessibility. However I don't believe the function really does violate any current copyrights and falls under Fair Use. Also its not an audio book. People who like audio books will still go out and buy them.

I don't think anyone is going to lose any money over it. In fact I think authors and publishers will see a little more because of it.
Mar. 4th, 2009 06:53 am (UTC)
Hack it
Here (http://apainintheneck.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/kindle-speech-hack) is a solution for books that the Authors had the text to speech functionality turned off in the Amazon book store.
Nov. 7th, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Hack it
that is not a solution. Just a stupid blog entry.
Mar. 5th, 2009 04:52 am (UTC)
Personally, (and I am a Kindle owner) I don't see the big deal. The text-to-speech function, to me, is akin to me reading a book outload to my husband. Or, when he was deployed, I would read books aloud to a tape recorder (who even uses those anymore!) and mail them to him. Since I paid for the book, it is perfectly in my right to read it outload to any one I choose. Or loan it out for that matter - which I cannot do on the Kindle, btw. The text-to-speech function is cool, but not anywhere NEAR the same ball park as an actual book. The reading is off, and it sounds, essentailly, like you're listening to a speak-and-say. A speak-and-say with a particularly hard time pronoucing names and recognizing paragraph breaks!

I still buy audio books with the Kindle because I love audio books. But, I also still read books aloud to my husband because he is a punk who won't read (but will listen). I don't think the Amazon is infringing on anyones market, and I would think anyone listening to the Kindle speak would agree. (You know those computer opreators you listen to one the phone? They are MUCH better than the Kindle.)

All in all, I find it disappointing that this is becoming such a big issue, and frankly, it would make me stop buying audio books because of it. The same way the music industry made me stop buying CD's. Sure, I love a good audio book on a long trip, but I'll make the sacrifice to show where my consumer dollar goes.
Oct. 2nd, 2010 11:05 pm (UTC)
Text-to-spech limits on the Kindle
I would like to challenge Mr. Hines’s analysis regarding text-to-speech on two levels: (1) Public Accommodation and (2) Section 508.
It is hard to view the Kindle enterprise as anything but a public accommodation for readers. This is similar to the disability access problems that were present in the Target case where blind and other people with disabilities were denied shopping access on line. In the Kindle store we encounter a service environment where people with print disabilities are denied perceptual access to certain products even though the technology exists to make these products available. This is different from case of Target, but the argument that public accommodation law does not apply virtual space has been struck down.
What people with print disabilities want is the ability to pay a fair price for an equally effective reading experience. In the case of the Kindle this capability exists, but the Authors Guild wants to suppress it. The audio we are offered is more expensive than a Kindle book or a printed book. In most cases it is also inferior. People with print disabilities want equivalent access to books. That means unmediated one to one communication with the author. Text to speech gives the ability to perceive with no interpretation. That is what one gets from print. We readers like to read faster than most audio books permit. One cannot speed up the reading of audio books without voice distortion. Text to speech speeds up with no distortion. The libraries that are allowed to copy alternative formats for books cannot keep up with the rate of publication from the book industry. That means that readers with print disabilities, a group that is much larger than just the blind, must wait past the point of relevancy or forever to read critical literature of the day. We are given selective access to a public accommodation that gives full access to people without print disabilities, and we are given no alternative in most cases.
My second issue is more technical. “Section 508 11: (b) … Applications also shall not disrupt or disable activated features of any operating system that are identified as accessibility features where the application programming interface for those accessibility features has been documented by the manufacturer of the operating system and is available to the product developer.” This text-to-speech is a required accommodation for any textbooks that are used by a University that receives Federal Grants. Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act requires equally effective access. Amazon’s removal of this feature for some books appears to be a removal of a recognized accessibility feature that is provided by the operating system for equally effective access.
Surprisingly, one can use the Apple Voice-Over Software to read any book out loud on the iPad. Since the Voice-Over was designed on the Mac and iPad to provide accessibility, and that is it’s stated purpose, it clearly cannot be removed.
There is a subtle difference between the Kindle text-to-speech and the iPad’s Voice-Over. I do wish the difference was in the opposite direction, Kindle is a much better reading divice.
Wayne Dick

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Jim C. Hines

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