Audiobook listeners who have longed for text that they can read along with — without having to buy physical copies of their books — got some good news last month when Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook retailer and producer, announced it planned to roll out a speech-to-text feature on books that it sold.
The feature, called Captions, would provide scrolling text that accompanies audiobook narrations, in much the same way closed captions work in movies.
That good news might be short lived, however. A group of publishers, including America’s “Big Five,” have sued the company, saying the feature constitutes a copyright violation. “Audible Captions takes Publishers’ proprietary audio books, converts the narration into unauthorized text, and distributes the entire text of these ‘new’ digital books to Audible’s customers,” reads the complaint in part.
In other words, the publishers argue that transcribing an audiobook turns into a non-audiobook, or “book”— something publishers would very much like you to continue buying.
Audible had hoped to introduce the feature in the fall, but the publishers’ lawsuit is asking a judge to block the feature before its release.
In a statement, Audible said it was “surprised and disappointed” by the lawsuit, and seemed to indicate it would be pursuing a “Won’t somebody please think of the children” defense, at least in the court of public opinion.
“Captions was developed because we, like so many leading educators and parents, want to help kids who are not reading engage more through listening,” the company said. “It is not and was never intended to be a book.”
So whether audiobook fans who really want captions will ever get their wish all depends on a judge’s answer to the age-old question “Like, what even is a book, dude?” This is federal court, though, so don’t count on the issue being decided especially quickly.
Michael Schaub is an Austin, Texas-based journalist and regular contributor to NPR.