September 4, 2019

Publishers sue Audible over possible copyright infringement


Hello! We have returned from our August hiatus. Sun drunk and blissed out, we’re so relaxed that we have nothing to report about the conquering tide of Amazon washing into new corners of the book market and new industries altogether.

EXCEPT that while we were away a crack team of publishers banded together to sue Amazon’s audio imprint–Audible–over a technology that allegedly violates publishers’s copyrights.

Before we went on break we wrote about Audible’s “Captions” feature, which essentially transcribes what you’re hearing in the audiobook into text on the device you’re listening on. The problem is, a transcribed audiobook is kind of just a book. And Audible doesn’t hold the rights to the written text, just a recorded version of it.

As Nick Statt writes for The Verge:

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, first unveiled last month and set to go live in September through partnerships with US public schools. 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.

That idea of “machine learning” is key to Amazon’s defense. In their eyes, the text is only revealing itself as the audiobook proceeds. Thus, because the text isn’t stored in a way that the reader can revisit, and because it is transcribed in a way that might be prone to error, it is not meant to replace the book itself.

The stakes here are pretty high—not just for publishers who need to ensure that their primary source of revenue is not infringed upon, but for the other integrations of AI technology that we might not have imagined yet.

As Statt puts it, “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.”



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.