iPad pre-orders begin, along with e-book copyright questions

The Apple iPad went on sale Friday. Word that the device can read any page aloud – including e-books – has authors on alert.

Kimberly White/Reuters
Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduces the iPad Jan. 27 in San Francisco. The device will be able to read e-books aloud, it was revealed Friday, raising questions about a copyright fight.

The earliest of the early adopters plunked down anywhere from $500 to $830 Friday to pre-order Apple’s new iPad, the sleek tablet computer that received lukewarm reviews when it was introduced in January.

But while techies may be eagerly awaiting the iPad's April 3 arrival, the book publishing world may be much less excited, since Apple has announced that the computers will be able to read aloud “the contents of any page.”

That means that with its VoiceOver technology, the iPad can read – albeit in one of Apple’s computerized voices – all e-books, according to new details released about the device Friday. That is bound to upset many who worry it could eat into sales of audio books.

When Amazon tried to do the same with its Kindle 2 e-book reader, the Author’s Guild, a writers' advocacy group, questioned whether that amounted to copyright violation.

The Kindle’s text-to-speech function “presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry. Audiobooks surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2007; e-book sales are just a small fraction of that,” the guild said in a memo to members. “Until this issue is worked out, Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books."

The same judgment could be made about the iPad. Author’s Guild Executive Director Paul Aiken told the Wall Street Journal in February 2009 that Amazon didn’t have the right to allow its Kindle to read e-books out loud. “That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law,” he said.

Mr. Aiken was not available Friday to comment on the iPad.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) disagreed with Aiken, saying that the electronic reading of an e-book does not amount to the creation of a derivative work.

“While a book read aloud may be useful (or not – let's remember this is a speech synthesizer, not a human being, reading the book), where is the originality that makes the version read aloud on a Kindle 2 creative, independent of the original book?” the group asked.

But, even if a few iPad readers do opt to have their books read to them by computer software versus a real person, the EFF said that’s unlikely to hurt the lucrative audio book market.

One group that has praised Apple's new VoiceOver technology is the National Federation of the Blind.

“Blind consumers, like our sighted friends and colleagues, will be able to share in the experience of using this new device from the moment we take it out of the box,” Marc Maurer, the group’s president, said in a statement.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.