By Guy Whitehouse.
One of the last pieces of legislation passed earlier this year by the UK’s outgoing Labour government was the Digital Economy Act 2010, which, among other things, extended the Public Lending Right to audiobooks and ebooks in libraries.
This transfers out of copyright both physical hardcopy audiobooks in libraries, and audio/ebooks downloaded to an mp3 player or ebook reader on library premises; authors receive a payment from the government for each loan based on a rather complicated formula. The US does not currently have a similar scheme, following a failed attempt to introduce one in the 1980s.
The UK legislative change represents an attempt to simplify the model of lending non-print material in libraries which had hitherto occurred under a licensing regime which had never really functioned properly. This had made librarians reluctant to build up large stocks of such material, although interestingly customers seem to welcome audiobooks: the global electronic book distribution platform OverDrive has been extending its business in the US, and in 2008 there were 11 million loans of audiobooks from UK public libraries. Statistics for the year 2009 will soon be available. There are also some avant garde librarians who regard ebooks as key to making libraries relevant to younger members.
Since libraries have always been the key source of income for audiobooks on traditional media such as cassette or CD, at least in the UK, the change in the law has been broadly welcomed by advocacy groups for people with impaired vision. However, there are those who are critical, for example objecting to the fact that audio- and ebooks accessed remotely via download are not covered by the Public Lending Right (government lawyers said this was impossible because such activity was covered by the authors’ right of communication to the public). Many, not least the UK Registrar of Public Lending Right, feel this is a significant gap because they do not think most people download ebooks or e-audiobooks on library premises. Nevertheless, it is a step forward.
Such issues are only going to gain in importance. In 2009 for the first time the sales of ebooks were significantly higher than those of audiobooks in the US. Many of the most passionate advocates of audiobooks are moving to positions in companies associated with the download market, and Audible.com expanded its catalogue of unabridged audiobooks from 20,519 in October 2009 to 26,113 titles in May 2010.
Where does this leave issues relating to the accessibility of e-books to people with disabilities?
The recent disputes over the Kindle’s text-to-speech and over the read-out-loud function of Adobe ebooks in public libraries only makes sense in the context of an audiobooks industry fearing that in some sense the future is slipping away from it, whether those fears are justified or not.
If downloads are the future, particularly of unabridged audiobooks narrated by a human voice, then securing access to the internet and to computers in general for the visually impaired becomes of ever-greater significance. It would be a real tragedy if, just at the moment books become available in non-print formats in large numbers, a lack of access to technology in general and/or to the internet or mainstream ebook readers prevented us from reaping maximum benefit.
In this regard, ensuring internet accessibility, whether through enforcement of guidelines or through user testing, is critical and making media players that visually impaired people already use capable of playing ebooks and protected audio downloads is as important as capturing access to a mainstream e-books reader.
Guy Whitehouse is a PhD research student at Loughborough University, UK.