The second version of Amazon’s relatively successful ebook-reader “Kindle” comes with a new feature, the so-called “text-to-speech function”: it enables ebooks to be read aloud. So, while you are cooking or driving to work this feature allows you to continue “reading” a book. Computers have had this feature for a long time (e.g. to read aloud PDF documents) but the Kindle with its specialization on ebooks is the first to bring it to the world of mobile devices. Or better, it could be the first. Soon after the president of the US Authors Guild, Roy Blount, had publicly critized the feature in a New York Times piece titled “The Kindle Swindle” as a potential threat to audio books, Amazon gave in and agreed to disable text-to-speech on a title-by-title basis at the rightsholder’s request (see Slashdot). In his blog, Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig describes this as “caving into bullies“, emphasizes that Amazon did not violate any exclusive copyrights with this feature and bemoans that “users and innovators have less freedom“.
From a regulation point of view two points seem particularly noteworthy: First, representatives of copyright holders have the potential to extend copyright protection even beyond the already extensive copyrights granted by national and international legislation. The basis for their (bargaining) power are those legally granted exclusive rights. In a way, copyright appears to be self-refinforcing or even self-expanding. Second, the possibilty to disable the text-to-speech feature underlines the regulatory role of technolgy – here in form of fine-grained Digital Rights Management software – in the field of copyright.
Independent of the text-to-speech function but related to the latter point is the discussion on why the success of ebooks in general and the Kindle in particular is still limited. On his guardian-blog Bobbie Johnson offers a simple explanation: “not enough pirates“. But that is another discussion.