Audible Captions Feature Prompts Copyright Suit from Top U.S. Publishers

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Audible's recently announced Audible Captions feature has sparked a copyright infringement lawsuit from seven top publishers that alleges the service creates unauthorized copies of their books by generating error-ridden text.

Through the Association of American Publishers, Chronicle Books, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Macmillan Publishing Group, Penguin Random House, Scholastic and Simon & Schuster on Friday sued the Amazon-owned audiobook giant for allegedly creating unlawful derivative works and asked the court to stop the service. Audible announced Audible Captions on July 31 and billed it as a way to boost interest in reading and help listeners who have difficulty understanding words.

"Audible, Inc. unilaterally — without permission from or any notice to Publishers — has decided to introduce a new, unauthorized feature for its mobile application called, 'Audible Captions,'" writes attorney Dale Cendali in 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," writes attorney Dale Cendali in the complaint. "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."

Cendali argues this is an effort to gain an advantage over competitors, and says Audible didn't seek a license, doesn't plan to compensate publishers and won't allow them to decide which titles are made available as so-called distributed text. She also says Audible's Immersion Reading feature, which requires a user to purchase both the audiobook and eBook, meets the goal of Captions without infringing publishers' rights. 

"Audible has admitted to Publishers that up to 6% of the Distributed Text may contain transcription errors, the equivalent of 18 full pages of a 300-page book (6,000 errors in a 100,000 word book)," writes Cendali. "And, critically, Audible Captions could directly compete with both books (physical and eBooks) and authorized cross-format (incorporating both text and audio) products, the latter of which benefit consumers by not relying on faulty transcription technology and for which Publishers and authors are compensated."

The publishers are asking the court for a declaration that Audible Captions and its Distributed Text infringe the publishers' copyrights and to issue an injunction barring Audible from doing so. (Read the full complaint below.)

The Authors Guild on Friday issued a statement in support of the complaint. "Text and audio are different book markets, and Audible is licensed only for audio," said executive director Mary Rasenberger. "It has chosen to use its market power to force publishers’ hands by proceeding without permission in clear violation of copyright in the titles.”

An Audible spokesperson on Friday directed The Hollywood Reporter to a statement it posted on its website in response to the complaint: "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 was 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."

Aug. 23, 3:00 p.m. Updated with a statement from Audible.