Dan Appleman: Kibitzing and Commentary

My personal blog

Why The Author's Guild is Wrong about the Kindle

The Author’s Guild has objected to the text-to-speech features of the new Kindle, suggesting that it somehow jeopardizes the rights of authors (See: will lawyers kill the Kindle). They are wrong on many counts.
First, it is not a copyright violation.
If you read a book out loud, is that different from reading it silently? If someone reads a book to you, does that mean you both have to buy a copy of the book? What if you hire someone to read to you? Of course not. So why would an automated reading device be any different? It is not.
Now a true audio book is different from a printed book. Why? Because it is a derivative work – a performance of a book. It is a new work that is derived from the original.
Some might argue that speech-to-text is also a performance of a work and subject to a new copyright – and it would be, if you tried to sell and market such a work. A similar situation exists with translations. If you wish to translate a book and sell the translation, you have to get permission from the copyright holder. But if a friend comes over to read a book in a foreign language and translates it for you as they read, that is perfectly fine. Text-to-speech is that high-tech friend.
But the copyright argument is not the biggest reason that the Author’s Guild is wrong about the Kindle. The real problem is that they are acting against the best interests of authors.
Here’s why.
Let’s consider audio books on CD in two categories. In general fiction Amazon.com shows 13867 results. In SF and fantasy, 1891 results.
Why would someone buy an audio book? Possibilities include:

  • Unable to read (visually impaired)
  • Too lazy to read
  • Wants to utilize commute time (while driving, on public transit).
  • Enjoys the performance.

Let’s assume that the first three of these represent 75% of the market, and that it can be replaced by text-to-speech. Let’s also assume that few people would buy both the print and audio book. Since audio books cost more than print books, text-to-speech technology should result in some drop of income to these authors as people choose to buy the print book instead of the audio book. If audio books represent 10% of a book’s total sales, and if we assume the audio book pays an author twice what a print book does, the author will lose 50% of 75% of 10% of their income – a drop in 3.75% of their income.
Of course, this would have a much greater impact on audio book publishers – but then why isn’t the audio book publisher’s guild complaining? Surely the Author’s Guild wouldn’t make such a fuss over a 3.75% drop of author’s income.
Especially when you consider the following:
Amazon lists 403,000 results just in general fiction, almost 90,000 books in SF and Fantasy. Or put another way, maybe 3% of printed books have audio books available. If there’s one thing we know about the market – when prices drop, people tend to buy more. Text-to-speech effectively reduces the cost of audio books which means people will buy more – and now they’ll be able to choose from any title, not just those with audio books available. Ultimately this will benefit far more authors as book sales increase overall.
While the numbers I use are largely hypothetical, the principle is clear – text-to-speech is good for authors. It makes their existing books more accessible and opens them to markets (commuters, visually impaired) that were otherwise closed to them. Authors win. The consumer wins. A few authors might lose a small amount. And audio book publishers potentially lose – they will have to market their good purely based on the quality of their performers, not just on the fact that it is an audio book.
The Author’s Guild should live up to its name and acknowledge the fact that the Kindle’s new text-to-speech feature is neither a copyright violation, nor is it counter to the interests of authors.

Kudos to Bill Gates

With news of Gates’ planned retirement from Microsoft, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on his extraordinary accomplishments:

  • He founded Microsoft
  • He managed to maintain a majority stake and control over Microsoft.
  • He recruited a team capable of managing Microsoft (in so far as any company of that size and built-in degree of chaos can be managed).
  • He built an organization strong enough to carry on running Microsoft without him.
  • He’s leaving Microsoft so he can spend his time making the world a better place by working on health projects and reforming education (something desperately needed).

While one might credit some of these to being at the right place at the right time, and one might disagree with some of his actions along the way, one can’t help but being impressed by these absolutely remarkable accomplishments.
Given the resources he brings into play with his foundation, and his talents, it’s just possible he’ll make a real difference addressing these problems. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he makes more of a difference than some of the governments who are supposed to be addressing these problems.
I, for one, commend him on his decision, and wish him all success on this venture.

Thoughts on written communication

The three comments on my previous post, along with some conversations elsewhere, have led me to think a bit on the nature of written communication in the information age.
Consider this comment: “You clearly don’t have any idea of what you are talking about. Unsubscription from the VB5 guy’s blog is in order” and the one that follows: “Surely you can have an opinion without resorting to personal comments.”
Now the interesting thing about the first comment isn’t that the reader disagrees with me – even most Microsoft folks will admit that google is still better on search (Gates implied as much at the D4 – All Things Digital Conference this week). It isn’t even that the reader made personal comments.
It’s that the personal comments were so mild.
It wasn’t too many years ago that virtually every forum or discussion board on the web was not only illiterate, but would frequently degenerate into massive “flame wars” where insults and personal attacks became the order of the day. Frankly, I haven’t noticed too many of those recently. In fact, take a random sampling of any discussion board from slashdot to most blogs and I think you’ll find them remarkably civil – at least compared to earlier days.
Some felt that the reason flame wars took place was the lack of immediate feedback that comes from posting on a discussion board. It’s easier to disregard someone’s feelings if you can’t see their expression while disagreeing with them. This still applies, but now it seems more common for people to respond critically to personal attacks. Perhaps as a result there is a sense that personal attacks reduce your own credibility? (If only that worked with political campaigns).
Another interesting phenomena I’ve seen is especially among younger people – the quality of their writing has improved dramatically. Fifteen years ago when teens showed up on our local BBS discussion boards, most of them could barely string a coherent sentence together (much less spell the words correctly). Today, thanks to Email and IM, teens write all the time, and the results are noticeable. Most may not be great writers, but the overall quality of writing has improved dramatically.
Between increased civility and better writing, participating in NET discussions has, frankly, become much more pleasant than it used to be – at least from my point of view. I’d be interested in hearing if any of you who have been around for a while have noticed this as well?

Four more years – What you can do now

My condolences to the Democrats among us, who are in a state of shock wondering how Bush could have won.

My condolences to Republicans among us as well – of all the Republicans out there, you get to have Bush represent your party (at least we in California have Schwarzenegger).

Anyway, we have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Business as usual in Iraq, an increasing national debt, a degraded environment, increased challenges to civil liberties and a preference for corporations over individual rights. There’s no reason to expect much change on this score.

You may be wondering what you can do about it. Sorry, you can’t all move to Canada or New Zealand.

And you can’t do much about Iraq or the deficit.

But if you’re concerned about freedom and civil liberties, there are two things you can do right now that will make a difference. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, just that you care about freedom (the first, and most important of American values).

Join the American Civil Liberties Union. www.aclu.org

Join the Electronic Frontier Foundation. www.eff.org

You’ve got nothing better to do for the next 2 years until campaign 2008 starts, and you can make a difference. Spread the word.

The Great Cyber Security Debate Between John Kerry and George Bush (that never happened)

Moderator:

The topic of tonight’s debate is security. Because this debate is fictional, both candidates are permitted to ask each other questions directly. There are no time limits. If a red light starts flashing quickly, it’s probably your hard drive light and indicates that your computer has been hacked and someone is downloading your last ten years worth of tax returns.

Our first question is to President Bush. Mr. President, there is some concern that your administration has not paid enough attention to the issue of cyber-security. How do you respond to this?

Bush:

We’ve been working hard. Very hard. On cyber-security. Securing the Internet – it’s a hard thing. But we’re making progress. Since 9/11 we have had not one, not two, but three different cyber-security chiefs. In fact, our most recent one, Amit Yoran, just resigned this week, leaving an opening for a fourth chief!

Kerry:

I have a clear and consistent vision on cyber-security. It’s a four step plan. First, we’ll give our cyber-security chief some real responsibility and funding so he can make a real difference. Second, I’ll have the department of education require that computer security education be part of every classroom in the country where a computer is used. Third, I’ll make sure that our own government agencies are secure. Fourth we’ll work with allies around the world, employing a global test to shut down the phishing attacks coming to our citizens from other countries. Fifth, we’ll start a national campaign to educate all our citizens about how to protect their computers.

Bush:

The American people want a president who is consistent and decisive. Not one who flip flops. First you say you have a four step plan. Then you have a five step plan. What hacker will be convinced to stop hacking by a president who can’t count? My plan is a real plan. We stopped the legal action against Microsoft, leaving them free to innovate. That’s the American way. Innovation. We won’t let the government use open source – people contributing to a common code base? That’s communism.

Kerry:

The job of government isn’t to protect Microsoft from open source. It’s to protect citizens from spyware and identity theft. It’s to prevent cyber-terrorism. It’s to protect people’s privacy. People should be free to use whatever software they want. People should have the right if they buy a CD or DVD to play it on any operating system or device they own, without fear that they will be sued by a large corporation.

Bush:

We need true tort reform, to stop the trial lawyers from suing the large corporations and driving up prices for everyone. What kind of candidate chooses a trial lawyer to be his vice presidential candidate?

Kerry:

We need true tort reform, to stop the corporate lawyers from suing individuals and scaring the s**t out of everyone. What kind of candidate chooses… oh, what’s the use.

Bush:

We need to protect the core values of this country. American values. Values held by real Americans. Look at this (he holds up a book). “Always Use Protection” What kind of name is this for a security book for teenagers? It’s immoral. The only real answer is abstinence.

Kerry:

Mr. President: You’re protecting large corporations and their right to control the way individuals use technology. Your cyber-security efforts have been mostly exercises in under funded turf-building. And now you suggest that the best way to secure computers is to not use them? This country needs new leadership. We need a hacker in chief. Someone smart enough to create a fake document that could fool a national news network….

Moderator:

This concludes our fictional cyber-security debate. Please join us next week when Dick Cheney and John Edwares debate the relative merits of the MSN Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger Services for spreading misleading statements about the opposing candidate.

Volcanoes as Weapons of Mass Destruction

Having watched the recent presidential debate, I realized that President Bush is in need of additional help. It seems that constant repetitions of 9/11, terrorism and nucular weapons are no longer as effective at scaring people as they were (at least in so far as portraying the president as the only one who can handle them), and there is urgent need of a new threat.

Fortunately for the president, there is unequivocal evidence that the eruption of Mount St. Helens is, in fact, being caused by Al-Qaeda.

Want proof? Consider this:

  • Mt. Canlaon (in the Philippines) erupted in 1988, the same year as Al-Qaeda was founded.
  • At least one volcano has erupted somewhere in the world each year since Al-Qaeda was founded.
  • Historically, volcanoes truly are weapons of mass destruction, resulting in massive casualties and property damage, not to mention poisoning the air and environment.
  • Though somewhat lacking in portability, they have the advantage of already being at the target area, eliminating the need to smuggle them into the country by air or sea.
  • John Kerry has done nothing to address the potential terrorist threat of volcanoes, leaving the door wide open for Bush to take the initiative.
  • Afghanistan, the home of Al- Qaeda, is mountainous – the ideal training ground for volcanic warfare.

Clearly, in these final weeks leading up to the election, the vicious terrorist attack at Mount St. Helens is the ideal campaign issue. It will catch Kerry’s camp completely by surprise, and by the time they formulate a clear policy on the issue, the dust (or ash) will already have settled.

For those wondering how truly effective volcanoes can be as weapons of mass destruction, the following may be of interest:

The Forge of God by Greg Bear: Plenty of volcanoes and cataclysmic destruction in the most depressing rendition of earth’s obliteration since the Vogons blew it up to make way for a hyperspacial bypass.

Volcano (DVD) – Toss in a few earthquakes and plenty of fire, this L.A. disaster epic is surely bedtime watching for Bin-Laden and company.

Dante’s Peak – Not much for mass casualties, but this volcano must have never listened to scientists, cause it erupts and blows up in just about every way possible.

Our Amazing Volcanoes – Terrorist training kit for Al- Qaeda children, teaches how to construct volcanoes and trigger eruptions. It is truly astonishing that such toys are allowed to be sold.