Digital Storytelling: Copyright Law and E-book Audio Readers - Law Blog

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Digital Storytelling: Copyright Law and E-book Audio Readers

Storytelling time has gone digital.  I used to dislike not being able to turn a page and smell that weird new book odor while reading.  But given the huge catalogue of e-book titles available, I’ve recently made the transition from print to e-books.  With all the latest e-book readers available out there, bookworms can literally access volumes using e-book devices like the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Nobles’ Nook, and the recently released iPad.

These devices are not without their share of legal woes, though.  They’ve caused quite a stir in cases involving everything from patent infringement to issues with book copyrights.  One kid has even sued Amazon, claiming that he lost all his homework notes when Amazon pulled the book “1984” from its Kindle library catalogue.  I guess dogs can finally retire from eating kids’ homework these days.

But not only has story time gone digital, it’s also gone robotic.  Many of these new e-book readers have audio dictation, a feature that allows the device to read any page out loud in a mechanized voice.  In fact, lately voice over-type technology has gotten the Amazon Kindle 2 entangled in a lawsuit over book and performance copyright issuesThe Author’s Guild complained, claiming that e-book readers which read books aloud are derivative works, and that such audio readings are basically like a performance of the copyrighted material.

In copyright law terms, a derivative work is essentially a new creation that is based on copyrighted material.  For example, a different version of a work such as making a movie out of a comic strip would be a derivative work.  The executive director of the Author’s Guild, Paul Aiken, argues that authors whose books are read aloud ought to be awarded licensing fees and royalties for the reading performances.  He says that allowing Kindle to use the audio feature without paying the copyright holders would be a legal violation.

With the release of Apple’s new iPad in April, we can expect similar lawsuits.  The iPad is equipped with voice-over technology that allows the device to dictate text into a robotic voice.  It will also be able to dictate e-books and EPUB titles (free online electronic publications).  iPad users can even download and sync their EPUB titles with their iBooks app using iTunes.

Amazon has since settled with the Authors Guild in February of 2009, and has allowed Kindle 2 users to disable the audio function.  However, we can probably expect such kinds of lawsuits to be revived with Apple and the iPad.

So are the audio dictations a violation of copyright law?  Michael Kwun from the Electronic Frontier Foundation doesn’t think so.  He argues that the e-book audio readings are not derivative works, since they are simply robotic translations that do not involve the elements of original authorship that characterize a derivative work.  There are no new transformations or dramatizations involved with the voice-overs.  He also says that the files are neither unlawful copies nor distributions of copyrighted works, since they are “transitory” and only held in the device for mere moments.

Finally, Kwun says that the Author’s Guild is wrong because the audio dictations simply aren’t performances by Copyright Act royalty standards.  The Copyright Act only protects public performances, and using your e-book to read aloud title that you purchased is not a public performance.  He describes the e-book readers as basically similar to when you read a book out loud to your kids.

I personally don’t think that a similar lawsuit against Apple would be successful.  I think that the situation is similar to when you purchase a movie and play it back on your iPhone for personal consumption- and we haven’t heard of too many lawsuits in that regard.

I think maybe what’s going on here is that there can be a bit of mystique and tradition that surrounds the literary community with regards to their copyrights.  Book writers have been historically very protective of their works; it’s not like the music industry where people are covering each other’s songs left and right.  After all, most books are written for silent reading, so authors are swimming in unfamiliar territory when it comes to audio dictations.

That being said, is all of this going to change the way authors write?  Maybe more authors keep in mind while writing that their works will be read aloud.  In the meantime, we can sit back and observe as people find different ways to file lawsuits for all the new inventions.


  • Emily

    My friends and I want to record an audiobook from a copyrighted book and post the recordings on Youtube. These are gonna be non-monetized. I know I have to ask permission from the author but what other kinds of permissions should I get and should I expect to pay a fee?

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