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The iPad raises the question anew: Is it legal for e-books to go audible?

Kindle 2 raised questions about the legality of audio features on an e-book reader. The arrival of the iPad may do the same.

By Rebekah Denn / March 23, 2010

Apple says that the iPad will include audio dictation, a feature that caused controversy for Amazon with its Kindle 2.

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We still haven’t settled all the pricing squabbles that arrived with the advent of e-books, let alone the copyright debates. Now, the iPad is reigniting questions about the audible versions of such questions: Is it legal for ebook readers to include features that read e-books out loud?

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The iPad will include such “audio dictations, a controversial feature that caused some trouble for Amazon’s Kindle last year,” reported Wired magazine.

When the Kindle 2 shipped with a similar feature last year, the executive director of the Authors Guild told the Wall Street Journal that “"they don't have the right to read a book out loud...That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law."

An Amazon spokesperson pointed out to the WSJ that a computer-generated voice was not about to be mistaken for a performance on an audiobook. Still, Amazon later “gave rights-owners the choice to enable or disable the audio function title by title,” said Wired.

The legal fallout isn’t yet clear, but comments on the Wired piece show how the copyright questions are already colliding with the modern world. One writer said he could already select the text of anything on his screen using his Safari browser and have his computer read it aloud. What makes a book different? Others asked whether blocking the iPad feature would discriminate against blind or visually impaired users, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. And, in a more old-fashioned application, one commenter wrote that under the Authors Guild’s reasoning “it would also be illegal for me to read a book out loud to my grandkids.”

What are your thoughts?

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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