hand me the remote

Cory Doctorow has a column in the Guardian about the silliness of the Amazon/Authors Guild dispute over text-to-speech. After giving it a good going-over he points out something that is actually much more disturbing.

. . . while we were all running our mouths about the plausibility of the singularity emerging from Amazon’s text-to-speech R&D, a much juicier issue was escaping our notice: it is technically possible for Amazon to switch off the text-to-speech feature for some or all books.

That’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it? Now that Amazon has agreed with the Authors Guild that text-to-speech will only be switched on for authors who sign a contract permitting it, we should all be goggling in amazement at the idea that this can be accomplished.

After all, the Kindle customers who’ve already received their units, bought devices that were advertised as “capable of reading Kindle books aloud”, not “reading some Kindle books aloud”.

He points out that we wouldn’t be too happy if we bought other products with features that could be remotely disabled at will. He also raises the issue – what if Amazon changes? What if it goes out of business?  Poof.  Your books are gone.

And though he doesn’t raise it, there’s the chance books will morph. Not too long ago, a suit against a publisher in England (where the libel laws are very different than in the US, which is why people bring suit there even over US-published books) led to a publisher sending libraries a letter asking them to either withdraw the book or tip in new pages to indicate that a certain Saudi banker hadn’t been rumored to support terrorist causes after all. My library didn’t own the book, but if we did, I certainly wouldn’t change its text based on the complaint of one of the subjects of the book.

What would Amazon do in such a case? It’s quite possible that the book would still be on your Kindle, but poof . . . the offending information would be gone or altered.

Cory Doctorow concludes that none of this is in authors’ interests.

. . . on the day that Amazon goes crazy, goes under, or goes to the dogs, our readers – the people whose long-term goodwill we depend on to earn our livings – face the possibility of having their Kindles arbitrarily downgraded, refeatured, or otherwise modified to attack them and the books they’ve bought from us.

If I were running the Authors Guild, I’d be sounding the alarm to my members to license their ebooks only for formats and devices that give our readers – our customers – a fair deal that makes them glad to have supported us.

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