The New York Times as a Soapbox for Content Creators Getting Paid in the Digital Age

The New York Times has run a number of op-ed pieces lamenting content creators’ dwindling ability to get paid for their work in the digital age.  The great thing about these pieces was that they were written by people with real cred.  

The first (and best) was from computer science visionary and sometime composer/musician Jaron Lanier in November 2007.  In it, he publicly recanted his well-known “piracy is your friend” piece from ten years previous.  Another good one followed, from the British leftist folk-rocker Billy Bragg, in March of last year.

The Times broke its streak and diminished its credibility this Wednesday with the publication of a piece by Roy Blount, Jr., the talented humorist who now heads the Author’s Guild.  Blount’s piece was thinly disguised trade-association lobbying, made slightly more palatable than usual by application of his own folksy writing style. 

Blount’s point?  That authors should get extra royalties for read-aloud (speech synthesis) features of e-book readers, even when the voice sounds obviously synthesized, because it resembles an audiobook, which garners separate royalties. 

Please.  (And for the record, I’m a book author.

This has nothing to do with copyright except for the minor implementation detail that text-to-speech software makes a copy of content in some memory buffer.   I don’t see how there could possibly be a Fair Use argument against read-aloud features, unless (for example) someone fires up the read-aloud feature of an e-book reader in front of a microphone attached to a public address system or radio transmitter. 

Blount should remember — if he ever knew in the first place — what happened when Adobe tried to sue Russian programmer Dmitri Sklyarovunder the DMCA  for hacking Adobe’s e-book DRM in order to let people use its read-aloud feature (among others).  Adobe withdrew the lawsuit out of embarassment.

As usual for these types of things, if we follow the money, we get to the heart of the matter. 

Many actual audiobooks from leading publishers are read by well-known actors who are paid royalties.  The actors’ names appear on the product packaging.   All that costs the publisher more money.

Blount’s point in the article is that speech synthesis is getting better and better, and it will eventually reach the point at which it’s indistinguishable from the voice of a professional announcer.  Therefore publishers should treat read-aloud rights as audiobook rights and pay separate royalties.  

The real story, of course, is that if speech synthesis becomes that good, publishers will be able to save money on actors; so they should pass the savings along to authors in the form of royalties.  That’s not a bad idea in principle, but it’s a rather cynical rationale.

Yet there’s a bigger issue here: as Blount says himself, the market for audiobooks is much larger than the market for e-books.  Ergo, the Authors Guild is concerned about publishers circumventing audiobook royalties by substituting talking e-books.  

Too often the voices of individual content creators get lost in the debates over digital copyright.  The New York Times had been helping to fill this gap, but its own credibility in this regard is now jeopardized.

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