by Bill Hannay (Partner, Schiff Hardin LLP, Chicago, IL)
Last summer, Amazon’s audiobooks subsidiary Audible announced that it was introducing a new feature: computer-generated text that replicates the spoken words of an audiobook. The new feature was called “Captions.” Shortly thereafter, seven major publishers announced their own new feature called “lawsuit.”
At the end of August, the publishers filed suit in federal court in New York City, asking the court to enjoin Amazon’s subsidiary from releasing Audible Captions which was scheduled for release in September. Chronicle Books, LLC et al. v. Audible, Inc., No. 19 Civ. 7913 (S.D.N.Y). The publishers alleged that:
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.
Audible allegedly seeks “to cut Publishers out from a business model that already exists, by unlawfully creating derivative works … and publicly displaying unauthorized copies of the Works.” Moreover, Audible Captions allegedly “does not maintain the quality control that readers have come to expect from Publishers and authors,” citing Audible’s admission that “up to 6% of the Distributed Text may contain transcription errors.”
In September, Audible filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that it was a “contract” dispute and not a copyright case. Alternatively, Audible argued that there was no copyright violation because its conduct was protected as “fair use.” The publishers opposed the motion, and the court expressed some doubts about Audible’s motion during oral argument. Before the court reached a decision on the motion to dismiss, Audible made a tentative settlement proposal and asked the court to put a hold on further proceedings while the parties talked. In December, Audible asked the court to continue to stay proceedings pending the negotiations.
In mid-January of 2020, the parties advised the court that they had in fact reached a settlement. They tendered a proposed permanent injunction by consent which Audible and the publishers had signed. Accordingly, the court signed the injunction and ordered the case dismissed on January 14th.
Although the court-approved injunction is filed under seal, the proposed injunction is available and in pertinent part states as follows:
Audible, and its officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys, and other persons and entities who are in active concert or participation with Audible, are permanently restrained, enjoined, and prohibited from creating, generating, reproducing, modifying, distributing, publishing, or displaying, without express authorization from the owners or exclusive licensees of the United States digital text rights, written text derived from the audiobook versions of Publishers’ Works for any product or service created or offered by Audible. This prohibition does not apply to any text in the public domain.
In addition, Audible is further enjoined from “(a) inducing or (b) knowingly and materially contributing to, any actor other than Audible” in the display of written text derived from the audiobook versions of Publishers’ Works, unless such actions are expressly authorized by the owners or exclusive licensees. Again, this prohibition does not apply to any text in the public domain.
On February 8th, the Association of American Publishers issued an announcement confirming the settlement and injunction, stating:
AAP, the plaintiffs, and Audible have resolved their pending litigation. Audible has agreed that it will obtain permission from any AAP members that are in good standing with AAP before moving forward with Audible Captions for their works.
Subsequently, Audible confirmed that it was extending the same commitment to all publishers and authors. The Digital Reader blog announced on February 9th that it has “confirmation from Audible PR that all rightsholders with audiobooks in Audible’s catalog will have the same option as AAP members, and they will be able to disable or enable Audible Captions on their audiobooks” (https://the-digital-reader.com/2020/02/09/amazon-is-extending-the-audible-caption-settlement-to-all-publishers-and-authors-will-you-disable-this-feature/).
It will be interesting to see how many publishers or authors choose to grant permission to Audible allowing the Captions feature for their works. And even more interesting to see whether and what Audible chooses to pay as compensation for such permission.
William M. Hannay is a partner in the Chicago-based law firm, Schiff Hardin LLP, and is a frequent contributor to Against the Grain and a regular speaker at the Charleston Conference. He can be reached at [email protected].