Intellectual property out of control again, or: why does the Authors Guild hate blind people?

>> Monday, February 16, 2009

So it seems Amazon's stupidly-named Kindle 2 will do something Adobe Reader has done since version 7--it can read to you. And it seems the Authors Guild is concerned this could threaten the rights of their writers to profits from derivative works. Because, you know, having a function on a piece of electronics that could make it useful for people with disabilities would totally eat into those audiobooks profits. Not to mention the inevitable abuse by the sighted--after all, there are plenty of visually unimpaired people who enjoy audiobooks, and if they're given a choice between having something read to them by Patrick Stewart and getting a two-for-one deal where the same text can be read to them by an annoying, clipped, monotone, digitized voice that struggles with homonyms and unusual words, we all know which one they'll pick. Who needs the mellifluous tones of a Shakespearean actor when you can have the precise ehn...unss..see...ay...shunnn of WOPR from WarGames?

Note to the Authors Guild: nothing says "douchebag" quite like messing with blind people, for fuck's sake.

The Guild notes, correctly of course, that technology will improve--no doubt the WOPR voice of Adobe Reader 71 will give way to the monotones of Robby The Robot before eventually evolving into Douglas Rain. But so what? That's really not a good excuse for protesting the existence of accessibility functions on a piece of consumer electronics. I would think the smart thing to do, instead of acting like a whiny douchebag who hates blind people, would be to add features to your audiobooks--Patrick Stewart, of course, being an obvious and already-mentioned example of added value. Or how about releasing audiobooks with optional commentary tracks similar to those found on DVDs? You'd have to structure it a little differently to avoid crosstalk, obviously, but that's hardly insurmountable. Or Easter eggs? Or why limit it to my imagination at all?

It may be enough, you know, simply to go with a good reading: I'm not into audiobooks, myself, but I know people who go into ecstatic paroxysms of joy when the subject of Jim Dale's renditions of the Harry Potter series come up.2 Dale, I'm told, does a marvellous job of giving every character in the series a distinctive and unique voice. I have a great deal of difficulty imagining that any piece of reading software is going to compete with that--so what the hell is the Authors Guild thinking?

The answer, of course, is that they're not. Not unlike the music industry and film industry preceding them, the Authors Guild is looking at 21st-century technology and trying to imagine how to apply late 19th-century legal doctrines and distribution channels to maintain their tenuous control over something--information--that has a natural impulse to be free. In other words, instead of trying to find ways to make commercial hay through value-added products--coming up with special features only available to paying customers--they're trying to go back to an old regime of noncooperation and litigation to back up rights they can no longer enforce. Normally, that merely means pissing off your audience and alienating the people who want to reward you for your artistic endeavors, but in this particular instance it means taking a firm stand against the disabled.

Nice, eh?

Second note to the Authors Guild: the Kindle's accessibility features are less of a threat to your writers than your own stupidity and short-sightedness might be.

Don't encourage writers to make their works unavailable to a broad swath of audience; work harder, rather, to help your members make the most of secondary opportunities to market their products and derivatives. The old models are dying, figure out how to game the new ones.

And for fuck's sake, stop picking on people who can't see. Makes you look like a bunch of tools.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing this, I ran across yet more evidence Neil Gaiman is a pretty awesome guy. Gaiman-in-a-nutshell: buying a book purchases the right to have somebody read it aloud to you, nobody will confuse Kindle's read-aloud function with an audiobook, and the money the Authors Guild spends on lawsuits would be better spent, you know, selling books.

Cool guy, that Neil Gaiman.

1I once let it read a game manual PDF to me for about five minutes--pretty funny listening to it grind out the rules to Cults Across America, at least for five minutes. Less than five minutes. Actually, it got pretty annoying pretty quickly.

2It seems that Dale does the books in North America, and Stephen Fry does them in Britain--Fry being one of the most prodigiously-talented actors and writers in the world and no small shakes himself, either.


mattw Monday, February 16, 2009 at 8:29:00 AM EST  

I don't know how many blind people would be using the kindle either, depending on their level of blindness. My father-in-law is totally blind and he gets his audiobooks for free through a library-like service. They're on special tapes that need special players and there's an immense catalogue of titles for him to choose from.

But, yeah, I'm with you. What's with the Author's Guild shooting itself in the foot that way?

I listen to audiobooks in the car on the way to work, and Patric Stewart would be awesome. He's done video game voiceovers, why not books?

vince Monday, February 16, 2009 at 8:40:00 AM EST  

When I first heard about this through one of my tech newsletters my reaction was pretty much the same as yours. I really wanted to send someone at the Authors Guild an email asking them if they missed the significance of all the celebration of Charles Darwin going on.

Adapt or die, baby, adapt or die.

Jim Wright Monday, February 16, 2009 at 12:25:00 PM EST  

This is precisely why I avoid unions and guilds and other such organizations. Herd mentality. Group panic. Stupidity in numbers.

Frankly I don't care for the Kindle. I buy a lot of books, but mostly I buy a lot of used books. I don't buy audio books. And the ebooks I do download are usually free downloads from works that have passed into the public domain. The author's guild is making jack shit from me. If I'm going to read an ebook (and, in fact, I read two classic short stories in ebook format last night, Black Destroyer and A Pail of Air), I read them on my tablet which allows to me to multitask while reading and also allows me far more control over content, formatting, and presentation than the primitive kindle. And my tablet will read to me, no matter the media format, if I so desire.

For me to even think about buying a Kindle, it would have to either do what my tablet does, i.e. it would be a tablet, only better - or - it would have to have some very cool capability that I can't get from either a paper book or from my tablet, i.e. precisely the things you outlined in the post.

The recording industry and now the publishing industry are the Lord Kelvins of the new age.

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