My friend Jean-Claude Guedon pointed me to an interesting new company, Talkr, a few days back. It’s a service that uses a text to speech engine to create automatic podcasts from RSS feeds. It grabs the text from an RSS feed and generates mp3s of the posts, then makes them available for you to download to an iPod or other device.
With a free membership, you have access to a certain number of free audio feeds, plus audio derived from three RSS feeds of your choice. The company is hoping you’ll upgrade to their basic or premium membership packages, which allow you to convert 20 hours of audio from 20 blogs, or 50 hours of audio from 50 blogs, for $4.95 or $8.95 a month.
I was curious to find out how this blog sounded in a text to speech format, so I started following the link “Want a Free Podcast of Your Blog?” This quickly led me to a scary looking partnership application which asked me to enter into a one-year independent contractor relationship with Talkr, where Talkr would generate an audio version of my blog, optionally include ads in my posts, and split ad and subscription revenue with me. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not all that onerous a contract (though it does a poor job of specifying who owns the derivative work that Talkr creates from my content)… but it’s pretty odd that a link from the front page of a site takes one straight into a legally binding agreement. Sorta like asking for a pre-nup agreement before the first kiss.
Rather than become a Talkr partner and recieve $7 (payable net 30 days, but only when I’ve generated $100 in affiliate income) from anyone who follows links from this post and becomes a subscriber, I decided to take advantage of my free membership and generate audio feeds for this blog and Global Voices. It was a surprisingly simple experience – enter the URL of a blog with an RSS feed, wait while the engine grabs the RSS feed and creates the files, then use an autogenerated page to choose which posts to listen to.
The resulting files don’t seem to have any DRM attached to them – I’ve downloaded two and uploaded them here for your enjoyment, the audio version of my recent post on outsourcing, and a post on blogs blocked in China on Global Voices, though the URLs they’re posted under are password protected on the Talkr site. The engine they’re using is fast and impressively good… which is to say, it’s pretty painful in comparison to listening to actual human speech, but vastly better than what I would have expected. (Which just goes to show that it’s a while since I’ve played with text to speech. AT&T has a great online demo that allows you to try converting text to speech in four languages with thirteen possible voices. I recommend Charles, who speaks UK English…)
While I’m impressed, I can’t really imagine listening to blogs this way. It’s possible to listen and understand what the synthetic voice is saying, but it’s way more work than listening to an actual human voice, and I suspect I’d get pretty tired after a few minutes of awkward pauses and intonations. Furthermore, I blog using a lot of links, which aren’t apparent in an audio version of my posts. And sites like Global Voices, which have multiple authors, aren’t well supported – all posts are identified as being from Global Voices rather than from an individual author. (Then again, I don’t have a visual impairment, and I can afford a subscription to Audible to eat up the long hours between Lanesboro and Boston. I can certainly imagine situations in which this would become very appealing…)
I’ve got some open questions about the intellectual property issues surrounding Talkr. I’ve never consented to a relationship with Talkr where they can produce derivative works based on my content, though they’ve offered me such a relationship. And since all the content on this blog is available under a Creative Commons attribution license, they’re fully within their rights to create derivates from my work, so long as they credit me. And they’re not tacking ads onto my content, though there’s a “bumper” that promotes Talkr, so they’re not directly generating income from my work. (Correction: as Talkr’s CEO points out in the comments section, they’ve not yet implemented these bumpers, and they’re only going to do so with partners who’ve agreed to a licensing deal, so the IP issue I was raising with the bumper is a non-issue.)
But I don’t get the sense that Talkr is checking for Creative Commons licenses before converting content (at least, nothing on the site indicates that they’re doing this), and I can imagine a situation where a blogger might be very pissed that Talkr is creating derivatives of her work without her authorization. (Imagine that you’re trying to make money from your blog. Readers who listen to your posts don’t hear the ads that line your website, and therefore you don’t get paid for delivering those ads.) Anyone know if Talkr is thinking through these issues and what they plan to do when bloggers complain about having their feeds translated into speech?
Bonus link: the Linux.com article about open-source text to speech engine Flite (Festival Lite) has an excellent collection of links to commercial and non-commercial TTS engines.