Bookseller Briefing 35/19 – week ending 30 August

Publishers sue Amazon’s Audible over speech-to-text feature

Major US publishers have filed a lawsuit against Amazon’s audiobook company Audible in a row over a new speech-to-text feature which they say is a violation of copyright law.

The lawsuit, filed by Association of American Publishers (AAP), was filed in response to recent public statements from Audible, in which it announced its planned September rollout of a feature called “Audible Captions” which allows US customers to read along to their audiobooks.

AAP member companies Chronicle Books, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Macmillan Publishing Group, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster are all named as plaintiffs on the suit, which asserts claims of willful copyright infringement against Audible.

In a statement, AAP added the suit “documents the company’s efforts to take for itself cross-format features that incorporate both audio and electronic text, outside of the careful decision-making, financial participation, copyright protection, and quality control of copyright owners.”

AAP, which has branded the speech-to-text feature “deeply concerning” claims the captions risk as “error rate that stands in stark contrast to the high- quality and carefully-proofed eBooks that publishers produce, and for which they acquire exclusive electronic rights.”

The complaint contrasts Audible’s machine-generated text with existing offerings, including Audible’s own Immersion feature, which also provides text and audio simultaneously, “but operates lawfully—and without errors— due to the permission, cooperation, and financial participation of the books’ underlying creators,” added AAP.

President and c.e.o. of AAP Maria A Pallante said: “We are extremely disappointed by Audible’s deliberate disregard of authors, publishers, and copyright law. In what can only be described as an effort to seek commercial advantage from literary works that it did not create and does not own, Audible is willfully pushing a product that is unauthorized, interferes and competes with established markets, and is vulnerable to grammatical and spelling inaccuracies —it is a disservice to everyone affected, including readers.”

Responding to the suit, Audible said in a statement: “We are surprised and disappointed by this action and any implication that we have not been speaking and working with publishers about this feature, which has not yet launched. Captions was developed because we, like so many leading educators and parents, want to help kids who are not reading engage more through listening. This feature would allow such listeners to follow along with a few lines of machine-generated text as they listen to the audio performance. It is not and was never intended to be a book. We disagree with the claims that this violates any rights and look forward to working with publishers and members of the professional creative community to help them better understand the educational and accessibility benefits of this innovation.”

Enid Blyton 50p coin blocked over author’s ‘racist, sexist and homophobic’ views

Children’s author Enid Blyton was rejected from featuring on a commemorative 50p coin because the Royal Mint’s advisory committee deemed her “racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer”, new documents have revealed.

The concept of a commemorative 50p coin for Blyton was discussed at a meeting of the Royal Mint’s advisory committee in December 2016, according to the Daily Mail. The meeting’s minutes, obtained by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act, say members dismissed the plan because “she [Blyton] is known to have been a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer”.

The documents also reveal the committee, which was considering producing the coin to mark the 50th anniversary of Blyton’s death in 1968, was concerned about a potential backlash if the proposal went ahead.

A spokesperson for The Royal Mint told The Bookseller: “With a rich heritage to draw upon, there are countless British events, anniversaries and themes which could be commemorated each year. To create a fair shortlist each proposal is subject to a rigorous planning and design selection process governed by an independent panel known as The Royal Mint Advisory Committee (RMAC). The purpose of the RMAC is to ensure that themes commemorated on UK coins are varied, and represent the most significant events in our history – and not every proposal will progress to a UK coin.”

Novelist Jilly Cooper told the Daily Mail: “Enid Blyton was a brilliant storyteller and her books have got millions of children hooked on reading. She definitely deserves a commemorative coin.”

Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate, added: “On the negative side, she was some of the things she is being accused of. But at the same time she enabled millions of children to enjoy stories.”

Picador’s Paul Martinovic tweeted that he agreed Blyton should not be celebrated with a commemorative coin. “For everyone using the ‘don’t judge by modern standards’ line – Enid Blyton had a manuscript rejected by Macmillan in 1960 on the grounds of xenophobic content,” the senior communications manager said. “An editorial decrying her racist book The Little Black Doll was published by the Guardian in 1966. Don’t do this.” (Martinovic later emphasised to The Bookseller that these tweets reflected his personal opinion and not affiliated with Picador.)

Blyton wrote more than 600 books, including series such as The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, The Naughtiest Girl, The Adventure Series, The Magic Faraway Tree, St Clare’s and Malory Towers. She has sold 12.6 million books for £55.9m in the Nielsen BookScan era.

The intellectual property of the whole of Blyton’s estate, Enid Blyton Entertainment, was acquired by Hachette in 2012. The Bookseller has contacted Hachette for comment.

Hachette Children’s Group announced a raft of plans last November plans to revamp Blyton’s Malory Towers series by repackaging the backlist, selling the TV rights – recently unveiled as a forthcoming 13-part BBC drama – and publishing a new title with stories by Narinder Dhami, Patrice Lawrence, Lucy Mangan and Rebecca Westcott. In June 2019 the publisher released the six original books, as well as six sequels written by Pamela Cox in 2009, with new covers by Pippa Curnick. A stage adaptation of the Malory Towers stories has also recently opened at the York Theatre Royal in association with the Bristol Old Vic.

Audible to delay parts of speech-to-text feature as court hearing looms

Amazon’s audiobook company Audible has agreed to delay parts of its disputed speech-to-text feature until permission and licensing issues are resolved.

Audible has planned to rollout “Audible Captions” which allows US customers to read along to their audiobooks in September, a feature that Association of American Publishers (AAP) member companies including the Big Five say is a violation of copyright law.

The group, including Chronicle Books, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Macmillan Publishing Group, Penguin Random House, Scholastic and Simon & Schuster, filed against the feature in a lawsuit on 23rd August calling for a judge to stop Audible from including their works in the programme launch without their permission.

But in a stipulation filed in a federal court on 28th August, Audible agreed to exclude works from the publishers until a judge rules on publishers calls for a preliminary injunction. The hearing, originally set for 5th September, has been moved to 25th September. Audible has until 13th September to respond to the suit.

In papers filed in US District Court for the Southern District of New York, Audible said it “will not enable its ‘Captions’ feature for all audiobooks for which publishers own, or are the exclusive licensee of, the text or audiobook rights” until the 25th September court hearing.

The Captions feature will transcribe a book’s audio to create a text that will run along side the narration. Reacting to the suit last week, Audible said: “This feature would allow such listeners to follow along with a few lines of machine-generated text as they listen to the audio performance. It is not and was never intended to be a book. We disagree with the claims that this violates any rights and look forward to working with publishers and members of the professional creative community to help them better understand the educational and accessibility benefits of this innovation.”

The Bookseller has contacted Audible for comment.