In one sense, X-Ray expands a feature that has been common in early ebook readers: the ability to call up a dictionary definition of a word. But X-Ray goes much further, both in augmenting the author’s original text and in integrating the additions into the reading experience. Some may see the additions as enhancements, others as irritants, but whether good or bad they represent an editorial intrusion into the contents of a book by a third party – a retailer, in this case. As such, they exist, I think it’s fair to say, in an ethical and perhaps legal gray area. That seems particularly true of novels, where the addition of descriptions of characters and other fictional elements would seem to intrude very much into the author’s realm. (I have to think X-Ray will make a lot of novelists nervous.) The fact that the supplementary text is sold along with the actual text makes the intrusion all the starker.
Nick is right that there may be some copyright ambiguities here, but I’m not sure such annotations are as intrusive as he thinks they are. After all, aren’t there many editions of books (especially classic books) that are heavily annotated, with introductions, explanatory notes, timelines, critical essays? what Amazon is doing doesn’t differ in kind — except (and this may be a fairly large “except”) that it’s adding these annotations to copyrighted works without authorial permission. So at least there needs to be an opt-out, or better yet an opt-in, provision. But I’m not nearly as alarmed about this as Nick is.