Major book publishers sue Amazon’s Audible over new speech-to-text feature

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Some of the world’s largest book publishers have jointly filed a lawsuit against Amazon-owned audiobook company Audible today over a new, controversial speech-to-text feature the literary industry claims is a violation of copyright law.

The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District Court of New York, includes the Big Five: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. It also includes San Francisco-based publisher Chronicle Books and Scholastic, the major children’s publisher that owns publishing rights to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. All seven plaintiffs are members of the Association of American Publishers.

Publishers are taking issue with Audible’s new Captions feature, introduced last month. The feature uses machine learning to transcribe spoken words into written ones, so users can read along while they listen to an audiobook. The issue, however, is that Audible is doing this based on audiobook recordings, which have separate licenses to physical books and ebooks. The company is not apparently obtaining the necessary licenses to reproduce the written versions of these works.

Because Audible is relying on artificial intelligence, it appears the company is trying to claim a distinction between a newly created piece of text composed using AI, based on an audio recording, and the virtually identical text version of the book the audiobook was created from. At the time of its launch, Audible CEO Don Katz positioned Captions as an educational feature designed for schools, telling USA Today, “We know from years and years of work, that parents and educators, in particular, understand that an audio experience of well-composed words is really important in developing learners.”

Audible was not immediately available for comment.

“Audible’s actions — taking copyrighted works and repurposing them for its own benefit without permission — are the kind of quintessential infringement that the Copyright Act directly forbids,” the complaint reads. “If Audible is not enjoined, Audible will take for itself a format of digital distribution it is not authorized to provide, devalue the market for cross-format products, and harm Publishers, authors, and the consumers who enjoy and rely on books.”

At the heart of the case will be a determination on the transformative nature of an AI-created audio transcription, and whether that constitutes a violation of the copyrights held on a written work. The case has a strong analog to a former Amazon publishing controversy a decade ago, when the company tried to launch a text-to-speech feature for its Kindle platform that would effectively do what Amazon Captions does today, but in reverse.

Publishers at the time were enraged, accusing Amazon of trying to trample on the nascent audiobook market and the licensing rights that publishers believed would help it become a thriving business. Amazon eventually caved in that regard, allowing publishers to disable the Kindle text-to-speech feature after a massive outcry from the US Authors Guild.

Publishers and the Authors Guild have been putting up a similar fight for the last month. After the feature was announced, the Authors Guild released a statement saying “existing ACX and Audible agreements do not grant Audible the right to create text versions of audio books.” The group said the feature “appears to be outright, willful copyright infringement, and it will inevitably lead to fewer ebook sales and lower royalties for authors for both their traditionally published and self-published books.”

Audible has been mostly quiet about the matter, telling The Verge last month that it did “not agree with this interpretation” from the Authors Guild, but the company formally declined to comment further. Audible also refused to comment about whether it would work with publishers on establishing some form of licensing that would allow the Audible Captions feature to exist while also fairly compensating rights holders.

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