Friday, February 13, 2009

Reading Aloud Versus Audio Rights

It's been an interesting couple of days. On the one hand, the Authors Guild is up in arms over the new Kindle's ability to read the text of a book aloud to the user. This, they say, infringes on audio rights that may be owned by either the publisher or the author. I firmly agree. In fact, for years, I argued with publishers about the need to prohibit them in their eBook clauses from allowing the electronic text to be read aloud. I rarely made headway. The position most publishers took was that they can't control if a person has software or hardware that converts text to speech. Frankly, I think this is a cop-out. If a gizmo is smart enough to read a book out loud, it is smart enough to be programmed to not read certain books. It's called "crippling" and while some users who actually can't see will be deeply unhappy, most users probably won't even notice. Because, in the end, it's unlikely that listening to a flat, monotone voice from the Kindle or other device will compare to listening to an audio book. That said, I do believe that the ability of the Kindle to read text infringes on audio rights.

And I also believe that an individual reading a book and posting chapters on YouTube is an infringement. Yes, you read that right. An individual took it upon himself to create a series of YouTube videos in which he was reading one of my client's books, chapter-by-chapter. He took them down when I requested, but I still shake my head in awe at the pure chutzpa. With all of the hullabaloo about Napster and Bit Torrent and other services that infringe on copyright, could a guy smart enough to make all of those videos just under the YouTube limit of ten minutes really not know that it was copyright infringement to post them?

I often think that people don't realize that a book can be sliced into many different formats and each of those formats is protected by copyright. For years, professors used to photocopy entire chapters from books and have the university bookstores sell them to students, without compensating authors and publishers. In some countries, the English-language version of a new Harry Potter book has been translated and posted to the web. Authors have reported finding translations of their books in foreign countries, even though they never signed a contract or received payment for that to happen. This folks is all piracy of copyright, pure and simple.

One thing that's interesting to me is that publishers are moving toward removing DRM from electronic books (for those not in the know, that's Digital Rights Management). DRM is roughly the same as the key codes used by Microsoft to keep you from ripping off Windows or Office, but in books, it works quite differently. Your computer is likely connected to the Internet 24/7 (or close to it) and so when you install new software, the program can require you to connect to a Microsoft website and "activate" it with a key code before you can use it. Books tend to be tied to the portable readers and for some reason folks believe they should be able to lend books or give them away freely, without the author receiving further compensation. Of course, this is because physical books work that way. But is it right?

Personally, I don't think so. I believe in DRM because without it, people can share books as many times as they want and the author and publisher earn nothing. It's not linear like with physical books, and they don't wear out, like physical books. Without DRM a book can be propagated potentially many times, and the only losers are the author and publisher.

What I would like to see, though, is less expensive electronic books. If an eBook costs a few dollars, then there's less incentive to rip it off. Just like if a song costs 99 cents, do I really need to borrow the CD from someone to burn it? Time is money. Make getting books in electronic format cheap and easier than hooking up with a friend to copy his or hers, then piracy will drop.

In the meantime, though, keep in mind that when you borrow a book, the author likely only got 10% of the cover price for the original purchase, and very possibly only 10% of the net purchase price (what the bookseller paid after a 50% or greater discount). Thus, when my father and his golf buddies all pass around the same novel and read it, the author is collecting only pennies per reader, if not less. Presuming that novel was any good (why else would so many borrow it?), is it really fair that the author—and, yes, the publisher—made so little? Buy your own copy, folks, and reward the author who sweated long hours to write it.


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