Online retailer Amazon thought it had a winning product on its hands with the latest version of its Kindle e-book reader, for it came equipped with a unique text-to-speech function, which enabled the text of a book to be read aloud by a computerised voice.
However, it came under flak from the Authors Guild in the United States, which said that the product violated copyright and was a potential threat to sales of audio books. (See: Now read your favourite books on your mobile, courtesy Amazon and Google)
The US Authors Guild had warned that the new Kindle feature could pose a "significant challenge" to the publishing industry and hinted at possible legal action, saying it was studying the matter closely. ''They don't have the right to read a book out loud,'' said Paul Aiken, executive director of the guild. ''That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.''
Many authors, however, believe the guild's position is misguided. ''When you buy a book, you're also buying the right to read it aloud, have it read to you by anyone, read it to your children on long car trips, record yourself reading it and send that to your girlfriend etc,'' said Neil Gaiman, author of books such as Stardust. ''This [Kindle 2] is the same kind of thing, only without the ability to do the voices properly, and no-one's going to confuse it with an audio book.
Now, Amazon seems to have reached some sort of compromise with the agitating writers. On Friday evening, Amazon quietly announced that they would offer an option for publishers to turn off the text-to-speech function.
''We strongly believe many rights holders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver's seat,'' said Amazon in a statement. ''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.''
Amazon said it is making modifications to allow those holding rights to written works to decide on a title-by-title basis whether to allow Kindle 2 devices to read passages aloud using text recognition software.
"We have already begun to work on the technical changes required to give authors and publishers that choice," Amazon said in the written release. "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."
The Kindle 2 is currently only available in the US, at a price of $359, but Amazon has said it plans to launch the device in other markets in the coming months. No timescale has been given for its UK launch.