Publishers Sue Amazon’s Audible Over Speech-To Text Feature

A number of large US publishers filed a joint lawsuit against Amazon’s Audible on Friday over a controversial speech-to-text feature that they say violates copyright law.

Audible’s Captions feature, announced last month and set to go live in September through partnerships with US schools, uses machine learning to transcribe spoken words into text so that users can read along while they listen.

The company has billed the new feature as an educational tool aimed at improving literacy, and argues it doesn’t require a licence to the text of a book since the written words are generated automatically.

The seven large publishers behind the lawsuit, however, said Audible’s feature was a “quintessential infringement” of copyright law.

‘Quintessential infringement’

“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,” their complaint reads.

It said Audible intended to “take for itself” a format of digital distribution it is not authorised to provide, devaluing the market for cross-format products and harming publishers, authors and readers.

The lawsuit was filed in the Southern District Court of New York by Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, along with San Francisco-based Chronicle Books and children’s publisher Scholastic.  All seven are members of the Association of American Publishers.

The Authors Guild said it supported the lawsuit, saying Audible had added the text feature “without authorisation and in violation of its contracts with publishers”.

Market power

“(Audible) has chosen to use its market power to force publishers’ hands by proceeding without permission in clear violation of copyright in the titles,” stated Authors Guild executive director Mary Rasenberger.

Audible said it was “surprised and disappointed” by the lawsuit and said it had been speaking and working with publishers as it developed the feature.

It said the feature allows listeners to follow along with “a few lines of machine-generated text” 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,” Audible said in a statement.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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