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Many Publishers Sue Audible Over New Feature

audible gets sued by publishers

Big wigs of the book publishers have mutually filed litigation against Audible, Amazon-owned audiobook company, over an innovative, controversial speech-to-text characteristic, the scholarly circle considers a copyright law infringement.

The top five publishers: HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette, Simon and Schuster and Penguin Random House, filed the lawsuit in the Southern District Court of New York. The San Francisco based publisher Chronicle Books and Scholastic, a major children’s publisher who also possesses publishing rights to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, are also included in filing the lawsuit. All the complainants are members of the Association of American Publishers.

Audible has revealed its new Captions feature last month and ready to go live in September through partnerships with US public schools.  It incorporates machine learning to copy spoken words into written words, enabling users to read along when they listen to an audiobook. The publishers have an issue that Audible is doing this using audiobook recordings which have separate licenses to physical books and e-books.  The company is not seemingly acquiring the necessary licenses to reproduce the written versions of these pieces.

Since Audible is counting on artificial intelligence, it seems the company is trying to assert a difference between a newly created piece of the text created using AI, built on an audio recording, and the possibly almost alike text version of the book the audiobook was produced from.  To support its claim, Amazon tells its copies may contain mistakes and are not meant to be a complete remake of the text version of a book.  While talking to USA today, at the time of its launch, Audible CEO Don Katz referred to Captions as an educational tool planned for schools. He told that through the experience of several years, the company, parents and educators have learned that an audio learning of well-composed words is essential in developing learners. 

 “Audible’s actions — taking copyrighted works and regenerating them for its own advantage without consent— are the kind of quintessential infringement that the Copyright Act directly forbids,” the complaint states.  The complaint states fear that if Audible is not forbidden to do so, Audible will take for itself a format of digital distribution it is not certified to provide, diminish the market for cross-format products, and hurt publishers, authors, and the consumers who like and rely on books.

Audible has vehemently defended the development of Captions. In a statement, Audible said that this is to assist young kids and improve literacy as the kids could be engaged more through listening. Audible said that it was never intended to be a book. An Audible spokesman also referred to a description of the Captions feature and an attached FAQ written by Kaz in late July which explains the differences between Captions and an e-book and the limitations faced by listeners. A significant difference according to Audible is the limitation of not flipping through the pages and a user must wait for each line of text to be gradually generated as they are listening.

Here is Audible’s statement in full:

We are surprised and disappointed by this action and any implication that we have not been speaking and working with publishers about this feature, which has not yet launched. Captions were developed because we, like so many leading educators and parents, want to help kids who are not reading engage more through listening. This feature would allow such listeners to follow along with a few lines of machine-generated text as they listen to the audio performance. It is not and was never intended to be a book. We disagree with the claims that this violates any rights and look forward to working with publishers and members of the professional creative community to help them better understand the educational and accessibility benefits of this innovation.”

At the core of the case will be a determination on the changing nature of an AI-created audio transcript, and whether that establishes a breach of the copyrights held on a printed work. According to Sam P. Israel, a copyright attorney and founder of Sam P. Israel P.C., this lawsuit will eventually shape the future of intellectual property rights in the digital age.  It has started a debate on the effects on intellectual property rights when artificial intelligence interacts with copyrighted material.  He said that unlicensed reproductions of copyrighted material with the assistance of AI would not get away through the courts.

The case is said to have substantial similarity to a previous Amazon publishing controversy ten years ago when the company struggled to introduce a text-to-speech feature for its Kindle platform that would efficiently do what Amazon Captions does today but in the opposite.

Publishers at that time were infuriated, blaming Amazon of trying to squash on the growing audiobook market and the certifying rights that publishers believed would help it become a flourishing business. Amazon eventually surrendered in that matter, allowing publishers to deactivate the Kindle text-to-speech feature after a massive outrage from the US Authors Guild.

Now from the last month, Publishers and the Authors Guild have been putting up a similar fight. After the feature was publicized, the Authors Guild issued a statement telling that Audible and existing ACX agreements do not allow Audible the right to create text versions of audiobooks. The group has labeled the feature an absolute, intentional copyright infringement which would eventually lead to lesser e-book sales and lower payments for authors for both their conventionally published and self-published books.

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Audible has chosen to stay silent on the matter yet in a subtle statement told that it did not agree with this interpretation by the Authors Guild and refused to comment further about whether it would coordinate with publishers on formulating some type of licensing that would allow the Audible Captions feature to work while also justly compensating rights holders.

 The Authors Guild has shown support for the lawsuit in a recent statement, saying that Audible added a new feature of text to its audiobooks without approval and in violation of its contracts with publishers. The executive director of the Authors Guild, Mary Rasenberger, penned in a statement that audio and text are two different book markets, and Audible is registered only for audio. It has preferred to use its market influence to force publishers’ hands by continuing without permission in apparent disregard of copyright in the titles.

Surprisingly, some of the books for which Audible has added Captions support are written by Doug Preston, the Authors Guild President. He expressed his displeasure, saying that his contract ensures rights conveyed to Audible are only for voice recording and playback and not for text reproduction. He said that he couldn’t believe that Audible has shown no respect for contractual promises, copyright and authors. He questioned how Audible could enjoy the rights it doesn’t have and labeled it as “theft.”

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