July 22, 2019

Audible’s new audiobooks program may just be . . . books


Audiobooks are books that get recorded. There are exceptions to this statement (like audio originals), but stick with me here.

Transcribing an audiobook, then, would simply create a text quite like the original book. Right?

That’s the ontological question that has some publishers upset about Audible’s (Amazon’s audio division) new “Captions” program, which would allow audiobook consumers to read along as they listen.

The program, currently in beta, is set to launch in September. But not if the riled up publishers have their way. To them, the Captions program infringes on the copyrights to the physical book or ebook that the publisher holds.

As Rachel Deahl writes of the reaction for Publishers Weekly:

At least one major publisher, Simon & Schuster, has already deemed the program illegal. In a statement released by a spokesperson, S&S said: “We have informed Audible that we consider its Captions program to be an unauthorized and brazen infringement of the rights of authors and publishers, and a clear violation of our terms of sale. We have therefore insisted that Audible not include in Captions any titles for which Simon & Schuster holds audio or text rights.”

The Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild issued statements that also said Audible’s contracts do not give the company the right to create a text product. “Existing ACX and Audible agreements do not grant Audible the right to create text versions of audiobooks, whether delivered as a full book or in segments,” the Guild statement noted. “The Captions program appears to be outright, willful copyright infringement.”

What’s at stake here, is the fact that the audio product (a sub-right of a book contract) and the book itself are supposed to be two separate ways for a book to make money. Turning those two revenue streams into one would have a negative impact on the returns that authors, agents, and publishers see.

Melville House’s own co-founder, co-publisher Dennis Johnson weighed in for the Publishers Weekly piece. Deal writes:

Melville House’s Dennis Johnson compared Captions to Amazon’s text-to-speech (TTS) effort, a program that the tech giant, who owns Audible, unveiled 10 years ago on the Kindle 2. “Previously, the issue was one of Amazon turning texts into audio, when it didn’t own audio rights,” Johnson said. “Now, it’s doing the opposite of that. It’s offering the public something it doesn’t own—print rights.”

Audible argues that the new program was “designed primarily to fill an unmet need in education.” And, sure, education is an admirable goal, but it’s one that has very close to nothing to do with the copyright questions at hand.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.