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Top Publishers Sue Audible, Alleging Encroachment On Text Territory

Updated at 7:17 p.m. ET

Seven major publishing houses say that Audible, the audiobook company owned by Amazon, is violating copyright law with a planned speech-to-text feature that's set to launch next month. In a lawsuit filed Friday in federal court, the publishers allege that the feature, Audible Captions, repurposes copyrighted work for its own benefit by transcribing audiobooks' narration for subscribers to read along as they listen.

The plaintiffs include the publishing industry's "Big Five" — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, and Penguin Random House — as well as Chronicle Books and the children's book publisher Scholastic.

"Audible seeks to seize for itself a competitive advantage against other audiobook providers who are not violating copyright law, and to cut Publishers out from a business model that already exists, by unlawfully creating derivative works of, reproducing, distributing, and publicly displaying unauthorized copies of the Works," the publishers write in their complaint.

A spokesperson for Audible emailed a statementthat says the company doesn't believe the product violates any rights and is "surprised and disappointed" by the lawsuit.

The statement describes the text feature as aimed at children, and says the company will try to help the industry "better understand the educational and accessibility benefits of this innovation."

Audible Captions has caused consternation among publishers since the company went public with the feature last month. In that USA Today story, Audible founder and CEO Don Katz cast it as a new entry in the company's continued attempts to challenge "the rote inception of what reading is."

But virtually from the moment the proposed feature surfaced, the publishing companies that supply a lot of that reading material made it clear they weren't on board. Among the words attributed to publishers and authors at the time were descriptions of "outrageous," "brazen" and "outright, willful copyright infringement."

The Authors Guild, which has previously teamed up with publishers to confront Amazon, expressed its solidarity in a statement issued Friday. The guild noted that it shares publishers' "outrage" at Audible Captions.

"Without authorization and in violation of its contracts with publishers, Audible added a text feature to its audiobooks. Text and audio are different book markets, and Audible is licensed only for audio," said the Authors Guild's 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."

The publishers did not specify damages in their complaint. They did, however, ask that the court issue an injunction to prevent Audible from proceeding with the controversial feature.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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