Publishers sue Amazon to block audio book text. CHRONICLE BOOKS v. AUDIBLE

Publishers sue Amazon to block audio book text. CHRONICLE BOOKS v. AUDIBLE

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the author of a new work of expression.  In the United States an author is granted a copyright when they fix their work in a tangible medium.  A copyright can be registered with the United States Copyright Office to strengthen the rights associated the rights of the copyright owner, however fixation is what creates the author’s copyright.  A copyright grants its owner the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit and make derivative works based on the original work.  If someone other than the copyright owner attempts to exercise one of these exclusive rights that can be considered copyright infringement.  A copyright owner can combat copyright infringement by filing a lawsuit.  The plaintiff in a copyright lawsuit can request an injunction to stop infringing activity and damages for copyright infringement which has occurred.

Each of the exclusive rights granted by copyright law are treated like property.  A copyright owner can sell or license each right associated with a copyright and attach conditions to those rights.  A copyright owner can even choose to not exploit one of these rights in a way that is inconsistent with their ideals or business models.

As technology has evolved so has the methods by which copyrighted works are distributed and consumed.  Books are not merely sold as a tangible object made out of paper.  Electronic versions of books, audio books and movie adaptations are all popular formats for distributing books.  When a copyright owner licenses their right to reproduce and distribute their work, careful consideration is given to what format is licensed.  Careful consideration is also given to the presentation of the copyrighted work.  EBooks must be formatted properly to fit a variety of consumer devices so the text is pleasant to read and audio books must be carefully dictated so it pleasant to listen to.

Frequently one company will be given a license to publish an eBook and the right to distribute audio an audio version of a book will be licensed to a different company.  With the evolution of technology it is now trivial to jump between formats.  Text to speech readers can read the text of an eBooks out loud and audio transcription programs can turn audio books into eBooks.  While it can be tempting for a licensee of a copyrighted work to jump between formats, it is important for the licensee to respect the format their license grants them.

A case which involves a licensee jumping from one format to another is CHRONICLE BOOKS, LLC et al v. AUDIBLE, Inc., 19-cv-7913 (S.D.NY 2019).  The plaintiffs in this case are a group of publishers representing authors and copyright owners.  The publishers have the right to license their clients copyrighted works and enforce the rights associated with the works.

The defendant in this case is a distributor of audio books.  The audio books distributed by the defendants are licensed from the plaintiffs.  The defendant offers two products that will play an audio book while a customer is reading an eBook.  To work, these products require the customer to purchase both the audio book and the eBook versions of a book. A new product offered by the defendant allows the text of an audio book to appear on the screen of a consumer’s device.  This new product generates text based on the audio book and only requires purchase of the audio book.

The plaintiffs claim that this new product is outside the audio book license because it is a reproduction of the text of a copyrighted work and a derivative work.  The plaintiffs also note that the number of transcription errors between the audio book and generated text severely degrade the consumer experience.  When the plaintiffs sent the defendant a cease and desist letter, the defendant made it clear they plan on going forward with the launch of the new product.  The plaintiffs filed suit for copyright infringement to stop the launch.

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