Some of the top publishing companies recently filed a copyright infringement suit against Audible, an Amazon subsidiary, seeking to enjoin to the audiobook company’s rollout of a new feature called “Audible Captions” which shows the text on-screen as a book is narrated. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seven members of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), including the “Big Five” of publishing: Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Publishers, and Macmillan Publishers.
Audible announced the new caption feature back in July and set an official rollout date close to the time when students would be returning to classes in the fall. In advance of filing the lawsuit, many of the plaintiffs sent Audible cease-and-desist letters or released public statements calling the feature “an unauthorized and brazen infringements of the rights of authors and publishers.”
In the simplest terms, Audible Captions displays the text of an audiobook to listeners in real-time while the book is being read to them. Audible generates the text in real-time using Audible’s transcription technology. According to the complaint, “Audible Captions takes Publishers’ proprietary audiobooks, converts the narration into unauthorized text, and distributes the entire text of these ‘new’ digital books to Audible’s customers.” This conversion of audio to text, the plaintiffs allege, constitutes the creation of unauthorized derivative works in violation of the Copyright Act.
The lawsuit does not specify the number of damages but does request the issuance of an injunction to block Audible from including the feature across its various platforms. The complaint asserts three arguments for why the plaintiffs will allegedly suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not granted.
First, the complaint alleges that the captioned text directly competes with other markets for the books. The complaint points to another feature offered by Audible called “Immersion Reading” which allows users to read and listen simultaneously with real-time highlighting of the text as it is narrated. Immersion Reading, unlike Audible Captions, requires the user to purchase both the audiobook and the Amazon Kindle eBook. Using Audible Captions, the complaint alleges, allows the same functionality as Immersion Reading without compensating authors for use of both the audio and text versions of the book.
Second, the complaint alleges that by offering the text of an audiobook for free, Audible “is devaluing the price point for cross-format technology, causing consumers to believe that there is little value in receiving the text of the Works when they already have an audiobook.”
Finally, the plaintiffs allege they will suffer irreparable harm because Audible Captions’ transcription technology is prone to making errors. According to the complaint, “Audible Captions does not maintain the quality control that readers have come to expect from Publishers and Authors.” “The Distributed Text contains extensive errors that, of course, are not approved by the Works’ authors or Publishers, and does not reflect Publishers’ desired presentation,” the complaint further alleges.
A copy of the complaint is available here.
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