Book publishers sue Amazon’s Audible in attempt to block speech-to-text feature

The Association of American Publishers has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Audible, the world’s largest digital audiobook distributor, owned by Amazon, in an attempt to stop the rollout of a new speech-to-text feature.

The planned Audible Captions feature, which was unveiled last month and is set to launch in September through partnerships with U.S. public schools, will use machine learning to transcribe spoken words in audiobooks into written ones. The purpose is to allow readers to see the words while listening, much like the subtitles in movies, for a feature focused on children similar to the Alexa Skill created in partnership with the owners of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

The issue, however, is that there are separate licenses for the distribution of audiobooks and physical books. Audible has acquired the proper licenses for distributing the audiobooks, but not the text versions of the works. The company may be trying to claim that because the text from the audiobooks will be generated by artificial intelligence, the new text will be similar but ultimately different from the words of the physical books.

In the lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, the publishers claimed that Audible Captions will provide consumers with machine-generated text of literary works without authorization by, compensation to, and quality control from the copyright owners.

“We are extremely disappointed by Audible’s deliberate disregard of authors, publishers, and copyright law,” said AAP President and CEO Maria A. Pallante, describing the products from Audible Captions as “unauthorized, interferes and competes with established markets, and is vulnerable to grammatical and spelling inaccuracies.”

The lawsuit names seven major publishers and AAP members as the plaintiffs — Chronicle Books, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Macmillan Publishing Group, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster.

In a statement to The Verge, Audible defended Captions as an educational feature that looks to help kids read and improve their literacy. Audible Captions “is not and was never intended to be a book,” and the company disagrees with claims that the feature is guilty of copyright infringement.

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