As controversies go, the Authors Guild vs. Kindle didn’t last long. Last Tuesday, Guild President Roy Blount, Jr. was fuming about infringement of digital audio rights in the New York Times. By Friday afternoon Amazon announced that it would allow publishers to disable Kindle’s text-to-speech (TTS) feature on a title by title basis.
Some fear that the Amazon caved too quickly to the Authors Guild’s demands. On the contrary, I think we will one day come to see this decision as a big win for Amazon and not the Guild. Amazon may have given up control over one feature, but in the long run they’ve gained the perfect alibi for requiring DRM on all Kindle books.
Previously, Jeff Bezos has claimed that the Kindle is DRM agnostic. A claim, no doubt, intended to deflect charges that Amazon is emulating the tactics Apple used to dominate the marketplace for digital music. As I noted last week, DRM shapes the marketplace for digital content and Amazon’s frictionless implementation of DRM on the Kindle will almost certainly prove to be an advantage as the marketplace for ebook evolves.
It’s clear that DRM on Kindle ebooks is actually an advantage for Amazon. If Amazon were to sell DRM-free ebooks, consumers could easily move those titles to competing readers when something better comes along. By including DRM on every Kindle book, readers are locked-in to the Amazon ebook platform.
It’s unfortunate that the Authors Guild chose to make an issue out of Kindle’s TTS feature. If the Guild really wants to do well by authors, it would lobby Amazon to support industry-wide standards like epub, and encourage the development of an open and interoperable marketplace for digital content. Instead, the Guild has given Amazon the perfect excuse for creating a closed system that will limit consumers’ options and fragment the industry.
Now that the Authors Guild has “won” the battle, Amazon has no choice but to use DRM on Kindle titles. In many ways, the TTS dispute is a classic DRM issue. It’s about managing rights for digital distribution. Restriction of TTS is just one of the many controls that DRM gives to rightsholders. I expect we’ll see similar issues in the near future as the Authors Guild will almost certainly insist on DRM to manage new rights that will emerge in the digital era.
Whether or not DRM actually works is another issue entirely. And whether or not rightsholders should actually have the ability to restrict certain uses is, unfortunately, a matter that will have to be determined at some later date.
So, the next time you complain about DRM on an ebook, thank the Authors Guild.