Over the weekend Amazon decided to tweak the way that the text-to-speech feature of the Kindle 2 worked following claims made by the Authors Guild that the new feature created a derivative work and violated copyright. Amazon will issue the Kindle 2 with an update that allows the copyright holder to disable the feature for selected works (yeah, I wonder how long that will remain uncracked). But the whole thing was a fuss over nothing.
Sure, it gave both the extremist copyright and anti-copyright brigades something to vent about for a few minutes, but to be honest this text-to-speech feature on the Kindle 2 is little more than a gimmick. I really can't see many people (especially the sort of people who are so into books as to spend several hundred bucks on an ebook reader) putting up with listening to a soul-less robotic voice for more than a few minutes. If you're into audio books (as I am - I have a huge library of material from Audible.com) then Kindle's text-to-speech feature is a very, very poor substitute. In fact, if Amazon played it clever and button that allowed readers one-click access to listen to samples of the book on Audible.com (which Amazon now owns), along with a "buy now" link, this feature could be a good way to drive sales of audio books.
I really don't think that publishers who specialize in producing audio books need worry about text-to-speech cannibalizing sales. The technology needed to match the quality of even a bad audio book is years away.
So, why did Amazon back down on this and put control into the hands of the publishers? Well, i think that there are two reasons.
First, Amazon's pretty up-front about the fact that this feature is experimental. In this case I think that experimental is another word for not very good. It's a feature that's really not worth getting into a scrap with the Authors Guild over. It would be a test case, and one that could not only cost Amazon cash, but also create bad feeling between authors and the seller. Secondly, I don't think that Amazon has the stomach for a fight with the Authors Guild right now.
Bottom line, Amazon had delusions of being Google for a moment and thought it could push the boundaries back. I think that the quick back-down shows that it not only misjudged its relationship with authors and publishers, it wasn't ready to stand by its initial principals.
Was Amazon right to back down?