Amazon's Audible sued over AI-powered audiobook captions plan

Amazon's audiobook company Audible is being sued by publishers over its plan to offer AI-powered captions. Five major publishing houses are behind the lawsuit, including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, which filed their complaint with the Southern District Court of New York. The 'Captions' feature was revealed by Audible in July.

READ: Audible is adding audiobook captions and publishers are mad

Put simply, Audible's planned Captions feature uses machine learning to transcribe audiobooks into text visible to the user while they listen to the book. The technology transforms the audio into text, resulting in accusations of copyright infringement lobbed at the company.

It's easy to see how the feature could appeal to users. A demonstration of Captions published by Audible last month shows the text joined by tools that enable users to get the definition of words they don't know, as one example of the usefulness, improving the overall experience for some users, particularly students.

However, the publishers behind the lawsuit, which was first spied by The Verge, accuse Audible of copyright infringement, stating:

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. 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.

There are notable differences between an ebook and Audible's captions, the biggest one being that users only see the text briefly on a small screen as the audio players. Users aren't able to skip forward or back through the audio's companion text, making the feature fairly useless for those hoping to get a sort of two-for-one deal. Still, it's yet to be seen whether Audible can ultimately proceed with its planned feature.