Big 5 publishers sue Amazon’s Audible over AI speech to text

Big 5 publishers sue Amazon’s Audible over AI speech to text

Back when Amazon added text-to-speech (with the Kindle 2), they seemed surprised that the publishers objected.

That was software which read the book aloud. I still use a version of it just about every workday, to listen to books in the car.

The publishers claimed that it infringed on their audiobooks. I didn’t buy that then: it’s not just that the experience of the two was very different, but it was that TTS doesn’t create a recorded version of it. It’s streaming, just another way to access the text, like making the font bigger.

I wrote this about that issue, just about 10 years ago:

The Disabled Deserve to Read

What eventually happened was that publishers were allowed to insert code into an e-book to block text-to-speech, although they were required to have an accessible version which was available to people who could certify disabilities (and not necessarily, and this is important, to the general public).

I thought blocking TTS was ill-advised from a business standpoint: for one thing, I consume books much more quickly when I have a TTS option, meaning I need more books.

Now, ten years later, almost none of them do block text-to-speech…so I guess I turned out to be right. 😉

That and yes, I thought it was inherently unfair.

Now, all five of the big publishers:

  • Hachette
  • Harper Collins
  • Macmillan
  • Penguin Random House
  • Simon & Schuster

along with two other big publishers

  • Chronicle Books
  • Scholastic (they have Harry Potter in the USA)

are jointly filing against a new feature.

It does the opposite of text-to-speech.

While you are listening to an Audible audiobook, the software can show you, in your app, the words which are being said aloud.

This technology has improved remarkably, just over the past few years. Speech recognition, of course, enables Amazon’s Alexa, but also Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and so on.

I’m surprised at how good the free transcription app

Otter AI


I’ve used it at work (with everybody’s permission). Just set my phone on the desk between us in a meeting, start it recording…and the transcription is probably 90% accurate or so (mostly messing up names), and can be exported.

Similarly, Microsoft Stream can automatically produce a transcript of a video…and viewers can use that to search for where a specific word appears, then jump right to that part of the video: super useful!

Here is Amazon’s demonstration of “Audible Captions”:

Audible Captions

Amazon again professes surprise, but I think the publishers may have more of an argument this time.

Certainly, accessible versions need to be available, and there is something called the

Chafee amendment

which allows authorized entities to make versions available for people with disabilities without first obtaining permission from the rightsholder.

Amazon is not that kind of authorized entity (I assume), and they aren’t marketing this for people with disabilities (they are pushing its use in schools, but aren’t limiting it to that).

It seems to me that the situations where someone has an Audible book (those are relatively expensive, compared to print books) and doesn’t have access to being able to sight read the book but needs to do that…well, that seems less likely to me than having someone with a print challenge in the house. Also, someone who sight reads is not, by definition, in the population of people with disabilities, while someone who can’t sight read due to a diagnosable condition is.

If the process does not create a “fixed version”, but is only visible while the book is being read, Amazon has more of an argument.


NPR article by Colin Dwyer

gives you a way to read what was filed, which was done in part to prevent Amazon from releasing it next month (in conjunction with the new school year).

My guess?

Amazon has to withdraw the feature, at least from general use. I don’t think they’ll work out a deal to actually pay the publishers for the rights, and I think a court would consider this to be an unauthorized distribution of a written text.

New technology will continue to push us into new legal quandaries.

There are virtual reality experiences now where you can read books…but those are typically public domain (not under copyright protection).

Suppose Amazon makes a VR experience to read Kindle books (I really hope they do).

Suppose further, which is the case with some apps, you can simultaneously share that experience with someone else.

Would that qualify as a public performance? Is the VR experience of reading it like a movie adaptation?

Interesting times…

What do you think? Does this infringe? Should Amazon have anticipated the objection (apparently, publishers sent notifications before the filing)? If they did, what’s the motivation in releasing it anyway? If this feature is legitimized, do you think you would use it…sight read along with a book in your Audible app? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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Bufo’s Alexa Skills

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog


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