As sales of digital products derived from books slowly gain traction in the market, the question of who controls what rights is moving to the forefront. That is one reason Amazon's controversial addition of a text-to-speech function to the Kindle 2—without permission of the copyright holders—became the talking point in the industry last week.

That Amazon, known for sticking to its guns, reversed course surprised many in the industry, but what does Amazon's shift really mean? Did the dominating e-tailer actually offer an olive branch to publishers and authors? And what does the text-to-speech showdown really represent?

For Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken, who immediately spoke out on the issue, it was simple—no contracts between authors and publishers cover the text-to-speech right. “By adding text-to -speech, Amazon turned the Kindle into a hybrid, and there is nothing in contracts that allows publishers to authorize Amazon to sell that product,” Aiken said.

The Authors Guild argued that TTS was an unauthorized right, and the organization had the quiet support of most publishers. Aiken said publishers generally agreed that a text-to-speech right is a separate right that needs approval of the author. Aiken said that while each contract will need to be reviewed, he thinks a “simple rider”—which could be easily added to contracts—may be enough to add a TTS right.

For its part, Amazon stood by its position that its use of TTS is legal, but agreed to change its policy in order to make rightsholders more comfortable with the concept. An Amazon spokesperson said the company is working to allow authors and publishers to decide whether to enable the TTS option. How exactly this will be done is unclear.

Although the Amazon spokesperson said the company is trying to institute this change “as soon as possible,” the Kindle 2 is still being shipped with the TTS option. Amazon wouldn't disclose how it plans to create a system whereby the TTS option can be disabled, but the spokesperson said it would be done on a title-by-title basis and there will be a way to turn off the TTS capability on titles that have already been sold.

All agents who spoke to PW did so off the record, a fact not lost on one of them, who noted that industry members fear Amazon, as the e-tailer gains more and more control over pricing and now electronic distribution of books.

One agent called the TTS squabble a “skirmish in a larger war,” noting that the issue isn't really about whether Kindle 2 users can have their books read aloud to them. The issue, he elaborated, strikes at the heart of what everyone in book publishing is worried about—Amazon is undervaluing content in the digital publishing space: “Is the pricing being set by a fairly monopolistic e-tailer or will it be set by publishers?”

Another agent said Amazon exerted its dominance by quietly snatching the TTS right, “steamrolling” its way over the preexisting audio right. “This is just the first sign of their abuse of power and their threat to publishers in terms of a transgression in the realm of rights,” the agent added. As for Amazon backing down, the agent didn't see this as much of a victory for authors or publishers. Asking publishers to opt-in or opt-out of TTS, the agent continued, “places the burden of choice where there shouldn't be a decision to be made.”

Other agents were less skeptical. One agent, satisfied that Amazon had backed down, said that the move was proof the company “is respecting the author's copyright.” Another agent, while agreeing that TTS marked a “clear-cut” infringement on audio rights, said, “I rather suspect they just thought it would be kind of neat.” Others have pointed out that the move now allows Amazon to add DRM to its Kindle titles.

Outside of the opinions on how Amazon acted and its possible machinations behind TTS, there are still unresolved issues about the functionality. For one thing, pricing is unclear. Aiken speculated that an extra fee could be charged for the TTS function and a TTS-enabled title could be sold as a different e-book, with a separate ISBN. Amazon doesn't necessarily see it that way, though, proving that there remains, unsurprisingly, a difference of opinion between the e-tailer and publishers/authors about the immediate value of TTS. When asked whether it would charge extra for books that are TTS-enabled, Amazon maintained it has no plans to tack on fees for it.