Amazon’s Audible Lawsuit Could Reconcile Patent and Copyright Law

September 1, 2019   Robert Gmeiner

  • Intellectual Property
  • Property, Markets & Trade
  • Blog

Audible, Amazon’s popular audiobook service, is planning to roll out a new feature, known as “Audible Captions.”  As the name implies, this feature will provide closed captioning, displaying text as the audio recording played.  The text will be generated from machine learning that transcribes the audio.  The resulting output will likely be very good but imperfect.  Anyone who watches closed captioned television programs knows that the text closely follows the audio, but there are errors. 

Amazon is already facing a lawsuit from major book publishers who claim that this is an infringement of copyright.  The right to make and sell audio recording is a part of the copyright of a written work.  Although it formerly mattered very little for Audible users, Amazon only had the rights to the audio, not the text.  The fact that the text is created through a computer process and is not necessarily the actual copyrighted text seems to be Amazon’s hope for success in the lawsuit.  The argument is essentially that the text displayed on the app is a derivative work.

This case may have important implications for copyright law and could be precedential in this age of rapidly developing technology.  If the captioning feature introduces errors, the argument that the output is a distinct product may hold.  If it is perfect, perhaps it will not.  Such a result would imply that the ability of an automated device to infringe intellectual property depends on its quality, not its clearly intended purpose.  This could easily be circumvented by intentionally throwing in a few errors into each audiobook’s transcription.  Looking at it differently, if the copyright owners (book publishers) are deprived of revenue, even if the captioning feature introduces error, Amazon could be guilty of infringement.

Patent law could have something to say about this case.  Mechanical equivalents of a patented product are considered infringing.  Copyright law and patent law are very distinct at the present time, but in this regard, the case could bring the two more closely together.  Consistency across bodies of law is presumably a good thing.  There is no telling yet how the lawsuit will end, but this is an opportunity to reconcile two bodies of intellectual property law.