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Tone Deaf

February 11, 2009

Fighting the crud w/Z-Pak and friends, so no serious reading getting done –mostly vegged out with movies.  Watched Zodiac – pretty awesome, though I can see why it didn’t make it at the box office.  It’s long, there’s very little killing, and you really have to follow very closely what’s going on.  All the same, I thought it was riveting.  Definitely recommended.  (Yeah, having Jake Gyllenhaal in it doesn’t hurt either.)

What I did see that I had to write about was something I saw on Reddit.  In the hubbub over the new Kindle, it seems:

Some publishers and agents expressed concern over a new, experimental feature that reads text aloud with a computer-generated voice.

“They don’t have the right to read a book out loud,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. “That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

An Amazon spokesman noted the text-reading feature depends on text-to-speech technology, and that listeners won’t confuse it with the audiobook experience. Amazon owns Audible, a leading audiobook provider.

To the contrary, according to that final arbiter of truth, a comment on Reddit (though it sounds to me like the guy knows what he’s talking about or I wouldn’t quote it):

Aiken’s analysis is incorrect under copyright law.  Copyright law’s “reproduction right” and “derivative right” only protect fixed and tangible copies or derivatives of a work. Text to speech occurs “on the fly”, and is not recorded or fixed in any way.

Now, they might argue that text to speech violates copyright law’s “performance” right. But the performance right is a public performance right. So, unless you’re having your Kindle read aloud before a public audience, you are not violating any of the statutory rights granted by copyright law.  Moreover, there is a strong argument that this type of use is “fair use” under copyright law.

A more substantive version of this argument was made today by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but I wanted to show the Reddit comment to contrast it with this indignant comment on the same page, which fried me just as much as Aiken’s absurd “analysis” (and had 160 upvotes, a substantial number):

We have this technology that can make the world a better place, connect people, and provide a platform for anyone to find out about anything.  But oh what a horrible world it is when somebody isn’t making the most possible money off of any aspect of that.

If all the plans that newspapers and recording studios and tv stations and movie producers and publishers and internet service providers had wanted had actually been in effect during the last decade and a half while I was using the free and open internet, I wouldn’t have been able to read a huge number of books, I wouldn’t know even a tiny portion of the music I have been exposed to, I wouldn’t have seen a variety of cult classic and hard to find films, I wouldn’t know about the geopolitical background of the planet, and I wouldn’t have the philosophy that I should be able to know anything I want because information does the most good when freely available and widely disseminated.

F*** the people who want to return to a period where the limit to what you can learn and experience is a function of your bank account.

In a nutshell, the twin poles of the copyright argument – from the Authors Guild, the idea that authorial rights need to be guarded so fanatically that you can’t hear when you’re making an ass of yourself in the process, and eventually harming the whole argument that people who think and create for a living shouldn’t all have to be selfless hobbyists.  (“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”)  Never mind the fact that someone who is using the Kindle to listen to a book – has actually bought the book!  That person is the rare bird who is still paying for content!  And you want to make it hard for that person to do that?  You want to restrict the very senses they can use on their purchase?  Did I mention they’d purchased the book?  No library, no used book store, no text torrent, no Book Mooch, no Pirate Bay.  “Fair use” is just that – fair. 

And from the other end, we get the pirate as spoiled princess.  Trust me, this comment is typical of the breed – the world owes me all its content.  Look what a lesser person I’d be if I hadn’t had all that awesome music for free!  How dare you deprive me of what I require to be a hipster, coolness which I would not have acquired without all the cult classic movies I’ve downloaded for nothing?  How dare people expect to be compensated for that stuff!  It’s mine now, beeyatch!  You’re pwned!

Both of them, as far as I’m concerned, are off the cliff.  I guess they don’t teach this in business school:  The harder you make it for people to use your products, the less likely they are to buy them.  Copy protection and suing downloaders and squawking because some poor blind person didn’t buy the audio book (which are often abridged versions of the full book, and often cost more) are the soft equivalent of the “theft protection” plastic packaging that you can’t open without a pair of banker’s shears. 

Conversely, I don’t think that every snot nosed kid in the world “needs” his free Coldplay, or that the world is somehow being kept in the Dark Ages because people who become really good at creating want to do it for a living.  Yes, I endorse the idea that copyright should be short – i.e. pre-Mickey Mouse law, the 28 years that would allow me to cash in right good if I ever would.  Yes, I endorse the idea that scientific knowledge should be freely available, historical archives thrown open to any internet user, and basic software tools should not be restricted to those who can pay bundles of money for it, especially if taxpayer money has gone into paying for the R&D behind it.  But the light of Reason is not extinguished when you can’t watch Grindhouse for free.  If you could, Quentin Tarantino would still be a video store clerk…oops, no he wouldn’t, because you aren’t renting videos, so there wouldn’t be a store. 

One argument is that if all culture is free, theoretically you create new masters of the form because everyone has access to all the material, a thousand flowers bloom etc.  But the new common wisdom is that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to truly master something – tennis, classical guitar, writing fiction, coding.  That’s five years of forty hour weeks.  If you have to master something after working all day at your unrelated job, in your spare time, because there is no economic market for what you’re mastering, there are going to be a lot less masters, not more.

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