Publishers are pissed about Amazon’s upcoming Audible Captions feature

Illustrations by Alex Castro / The Verge

Earlier this week, Audible revealed that it was working on a new feature for its audiobook app: Audible Captions, which will use machine learning to transcribe an audio recording for listeners, allowing them to read along with the narrator. While the Amazon-owned company claims it is designed as an educational feature, a number of publishers are demanding that their books be excluded, saying these captions are “unauthorized and brazen infringements of the rights of authors and publishers.”

On its face, the idea seems useful, much in the same way that I turn on subtitles for things that I’m watching on TV, but publishers have some reason to be concerned: it’s possible that fewer people will buy distinct e-book or physical books if they can simply pick up an Audible audiobook and get the text for free, too.

And Audible may not have the right to provide that text, anyhow.

In the publishing world, authors and their agents sign very specific contracts with publishers for their works: these contracts cover everything from when the manuscript needs to be delivered, how an author is paid, and what rights to the text a publisher might have, such as print or audio. As an audiobook publisher and retailer, Audible gets the rights to produce an audiobook based on a book, or to sell an audiobook that a publisher creates in its store. Publishers say that a feature that displays the text of what’s being read — itself a reproduction from the original text — isn’t one of those specific rights that publishers and authors have granted, and they don’t want their books included in Audible’s feature when it rolls out.

But Audible Captions aren’t quite the same experience as reading an e-book, as you can see here:

Audible tells The Verge that the captions are “small amounts of machine-generated text are displayed progressively a few lines at a time while audio is playing, and listeners cannot read at their own pace or flip through pages as in a print book or eBook.” Audible wouldn’t say which books would get the feature, only that “titles that can be transcribed at a sufficiently high confidence rate” will be included. It’s planning to release the feature in early September “to roll out with the 2019 school year.”

Penguin Random House, one of the world’s five biggest publishers, told The Verge that “we have reached out to Audible to express our strong copyright concerns with their recently announced Captions program, which is not authorized by our business terms,” and that it expects the company to exclude its titles from the captions feature.

Other publishers have followed suit. Simon & Schuster (disclosure: I’m writing a book for one of its imprints, Saga Press), echos their sentiments, calling the feature “an unauthorized and brazen infringements of the rights of authors and publishers, and a clear violation of our terms of sale,” and has also told Audible to “not include in Captions any titles for which Simon & Schuster holds audio or text rights.” A Macmillan spokesperson said that “the initiative was not authorized by Macmillan, and we are currently looking into it.”

The Authors Guild also released a statement, saying that “existing ACX and Audible agreements do not grant Audible the right to create text versions of audio books,” and that the feature “appears to be outright, willful copyright infringement, and it will inevitably lead to fewer ebook sales and lower royalties for authors for both their traditionally published and self-published books.”

When asked about the feature squares up against the existing audio rights that are granted to it, an Audible spokesperson told The Verge that it does “not agree with this interpretation,” but declined to comment further on whether or not the company actually has the right to go through with it. Audible refused to comment about whether or not it would honor publishers’ requests, saying only that it was working with publishers to “help address some confusion about how Audible Captions works and what listeners will experience.”

The Verge has reached out to other major publishers for comment, including Little, Brown and Company and Hachette, but did not hear back by publication of this post.

DongWon Song, an agent from the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, tells The Verge that there’s two sets of issues at play, because Audible acts as both a publisher and as a retailer. “If Audible is producing a book as a sublicense from a publisher,” he says “then they only have rights to the audio, or they have the right to create and sell an audio recording of the text, and that’s all the rights that they’re given: they’re not given any text rights, they’re not given any electronic rights, they’re just given the right to distribute an audio edition.”

“As a retailer, they have even less rights. As a retailer, they have no right to what’s in the text, so if it’s third party, whether Macmillan makes the audio or Random House or whatever, they make their own audio edition, and as a technology or sales platform, Audible only has the right to sell those things on the platform.”

Audible’s feature is using machine learning to translate those audio recordings into text, and while the company denied that it’s creating ebooks, that translation is “not a thing that is explicitly granted to them,” Song says. “I hear what they’re saying on one level, but on another level, they are reproducing the full text of the book in print form. Full stop. It’s not an excerpt, it’s not a fair use argument, they’re taking the entire text and reproducing that on your phone or on your device.”

Song notes that while he sees some value in such a feature, “it’s depriving authors of a route for more income and to be paid for their work.”

This isn’t the first time that Amazon has come under fire for publishers when it comes to translating text to audio, or vice-versa. In 2009, the company backtracked on a text-to-speech feature on the Kindle, which allowed readers to listen to their book with machine-generated narrator. The Authors Guild argued that the feature deprived authors of their audio rights, and Amazon disabled it.


I get that there are possible legal issues here but a future in which you purchase an audio book and that just includes the book digitally as well would be a much brighter future.

Yeah, I’m not entirely sure why Amazon / publishers don’t do this regularly. They do sometimes sell the audiobook at a discount if you purchase the ebook.

Most of the time, buying the ebook first then the audio will get you a much cheaper price than the reverse.

I want a future of 3-in-1. Physical book, e-book, audiobook. I’d happily spend a bit more for that.

Would you really though? Consider the cost, a physical book+ebook+audiobook, $50 or more?
It is worth that amount, certainly for physical + audio (narrators and producers need to be paid too) but no-one is willing to pay this money because Amazon and similar forces have worked so hard to devalue books in the name of consumer interest while destroying the interests of authors, editors and publishers.

I definitely would. If a book is worth reading, $50 is nothing for all three channels to access that content in any way I want.

It almost doesn’t matter than I can do right now by purchasing all three channels, I refuse to pay 3 times for something I’ve already bought. It’s all a matter of perception.

These publishers should try to understand that.

you forgot to add the movie adaptation of the book (plus popcorn).

Cant someone just take an app, like Dragon that turns speech to text, and do this already? Many audio book productions are (pardon the pun) dramatically different than the printed text anyway.

Subtitles seems like a silly thing to complain about when you’ve already sold the book to a customer. Whats next, preventing the customer from reading a printed book aloud to their children?

There is a large difference between one person using an app to transcribe a book on their own and one of the world’s most profitable companies doing it to authors/publishers without permission. Reading aloud is an extremely slippery slope argument, though I imagine it would fall under something similar to "you are not allowed to publicly screen this movie" type stuff.

Amazon makes enough money for the richest man in the world already, while the average full time writer makes £11,000 a year over here in the UK. Unless authors stand firm in this together to find a way to make the technology beneficial for both writer and storefront, they are gonna be squeezed even further.

IDK, how about making it beneficial to the fucking consumer?

If they could they would absolutely love that. Just like cable companies would love nothing more than to charge per set of eye balls instead of per household. If there’s a pair of eyes on the screen that haven’t paid, the program pauses until they leave the room. After all, they consider anyone in the household who isn’t paying the bill to be a free loader.

They don’t want those millions of children freeloading by having their parents reading a book to them.

Better implementation that suits everyone: if I own both audiobook and e-book (which I frequently do), have the option to display the actual e-book text on the screen. Or play the audio as I’m reading in the Kindle app/device interface.

Most books I read these days (Sci-Fi and Fantasy) are full of made up words and names anyway. Trying to transcribe those to text from audio using a standard English vocabulary wouldn’t produce good results.

The concept exists, but it doesn’t appear to be very widespread or well known:

Copyright holders constant attempts to "protect" their work increasingly drive me to not engage their product at all. I pay you a hefty amount to enjoy your work and then you constantly throw up roadblocks for me to do so? The funny thing is if they put it up for free no restrictions and just said "optional donations" I’d probably pay just as much to enjoy their content, possibly more. It’s like movies these days, you aren’t paying for the content, you’re paying for a license, just for you, and you can’t turn it into any format, only the one we allow you to. And then they want to charge excessive amounts for it.

The greedier they get, the less consumer friendly they get, and the more hesitant I get to actually buy things. I’ll just find better ways to spend my time and money.

It looks like the copyright industry is the only one that can get away with getting paid multiple times for the same product.

Imagine paying someone to pave your driveway and then having to pay an additional fee if you want to park 2 cars there instead of 1. Or buying tableware, but only being allowed to use them yourself, using them to serve food your guests requires an extra license. Want to use these plates in your restaurant ? That’s commercial use, you need a different license and have to pay a percentage of the price of each meal served on them.

No one would accept that. So why do we accept it from the copyright industry ?

Once I have paid for the license to a story, I should have access to that story in every possible medium. It’s the same story, so the same license should apply. If I buy an e-book I should be able to get a physical copy for just the cost of printing it, or a audiobook for just the cost of the narration.

seriously? I would expect someone on a tech blog to be more sympathetic. How many times do you pay for expanded acces for your apps? For your services? Do you think that the amount you pay for a book (the same amount you paid before the internet existed) should now support a number of technologies and workers to do more for you too?

Your license for books, software, movies etc enables you to do with it what you paid for it to do. If you want it to do more, pay more, unless you too provide your work for free.

Do you think that the amount you pay for a book (the same amount you paid before the internet existed) should now support a number of technologies and workers to do more for you too?

Yea. I do. Because it actually takes far less people to do anything than it did years ago. I worked as a data analyst for a decade. Every day, I did a job that would have required a dozen or more people in 1980. Do you think I got paid a dozen people’s salaries?

I think I replied to the wrong person. Will reply to you in another comment.

As somebody who is trying to convert my old "media" to conserve space, I get where you’re coming from, and I think my reply to the person probably is in line to some degree with what you said. However, as somebody who is trying to convert my old "media" to conserve space, it does kind of feel like getting cheated. For instance, having now been in this scenario, I will never buy a physical book again, even if I do have the space in the future. The fact there is no way to convert them, it’s understandable but I think if they want the market to survive in the future, they need to find a medium.

Maybe buying the physical copy comes with a digital code to download the digital version. It wouldn’t cost too much to implement and they can even build it into the cost of the book if they want (which they probably would). It’s what movies are increasingly doing these days, the digital code thing.

That being said, the movie industry is even worse in this regard and is largely what prompted my negative response. I like having a physical copy of things. It’s a piece of mind in case any specific company goes down or whatever. I have a back up. I don’t care for how they screw over the customer in the name of protecting their content. All this effort and people are still sharing all of it as well as they ever have been. But for those that insist on actually paying, we end up being the ones penalized.

All this DRM protection and stuff only hurts the people who wouldn’t abuse it in the first place. The people willing to abuse it and share it can do it just as easy as ever.

I wouldn’t go quite that far. If it’s a significant deviation from the original format, I understand the idea. If I buy an e-book, there’s still a fair amount of effort that would go into turning the same book into an audiobook. While I would be more likely to buy it at a discount than full price if I already bought the e-book, I don’t really expect it.

It’s a totally different story when I bought the audiobook and the idea that subtitling it, much like how a movie might, is somehow a significant deviation. I guess I’m biased because I have some auditory processing issues, so being able to see what is being said during times where I might have issues processing something being said goes a long way. Still, there is a big difference between an e-book and subtitles reading along with an audiobook the way song lyrics do.

My sentiment was geared much more toward the movie industry. Having recently jumped into Plex and creating a server for the content I bought over many years, the lengths the entire industry goes through to limit what you can do, after spending $20 or more on a movie, well… seeing this article in that moment didn’t catch me in the best mood.

Frankly, you don’t pay a "hefty" amount. You pay less than a burger and fries. Consider the work that goes into creating a book by both the author and the publisher. You should be paying more.

Where do you get your burgers and fries from? An average audio book on audible costs like $40.

Seriously….that was a bad example dude. Lol.

Also, a ton of work goes into a burger too. Farming (for both the meat, veggies, grain for the bun), the actual manufacturing, transport and distribution, down to the obviously only work you considered at the restaurant. Comon man.

First off, I was talking about the price of a book, paper, original style, the way most people still consume the content.

Secondly, yes a burger and fries also require a lot of work but I’m not talking about a simple bill of materials, the scale is completely different. I was making a comparison on price. If you want to compare time I guarantee that the average author makes for far less per hour than anyone in the burger industry.

I’m sure you’d understand this if you’d every written anything of value yourself, aside from internet snark.

View All Comments
Back to top ↑