I’m coming late to the OCLC WorldCat records policy conversation, but that gives me the advantage of having digested some of the discussion that’s already happened. There’s a little bibliography at the end of this post that points to many of the comments I read and considered.
Peter Suber Gavin Baker summarized the issue nicely:
The new Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records supercedes the earlier Guidelines for the Use and Transfer of OCLC-Derived Records, last revised in the pre-Web era. (Karen Coyle points out that the Guidelines were themselves a response to an earlier attempt by OCLC to claim copyright in WorldCat records. The new policy avoids the term copyright, but does make an oblique reference to “the intellectual property rights [in WorldCat or WorldCat Records]”.) The new policy is slated to go into effect in February 2009.
Aside from the name change (from “guidelines” to “policy”, implying enforceability), key points of the new policy include prohibitions on commercial or “unreasonable” use. (An earlier version of the policy also required attribution to OCLC in each record re-used; in the latest version, the attribution requirement has been weakened to a recommendation.)
The dust-up arose because OCLC’s new policy for use of WorldCat records seems to restrict what people can do with OCLC’s records, in ways that the old guidelines hinted at but didn’t actually do. Though it sounds like this was not OCLC’s intention (more on that in a moment) the new policy, if taken literally, prohibits uses that many libraries and organizations are already making of OCLC records, and blocks potential uses that could have been opened up by a more liberal policy.
A couple of people have asked me to write about the brouhaha from a copyright perspective, but this isn’t a copyright issue at all. Like many of the challenges facing libraries in the digital age, the problem isn’t copyright, it’s license agreements; in this case, the agreement between OCLC and the libraries that participate in WorldCat.
Most of the elements that make up a WorldCat record – metadata that includes information on author, title, and year of publication – are not copyrightable. They’re facts. Indeed, much of what makes OCLC’s purported attempt to control WorldCat records so objectionable is that not only are the records uncopyrightable, but even if they were, the copyright would belong to the libraries that created the records. OCLC does not produce the records in WorldCat, it merely ingests them from member libraries. For OCLC to claim copyright or any other kind of ownership over those records offends the sensibilities of the librarians who create the records that make up the catalog and who pay a lot of money to participate in the system, and it worries the librarians and others who depend on the catalog as a shared source of quality metadata. When OCLC took it even further, and used the policy to place extensive license restrictions on the kinds of uses that members can make of the records – limiting acceptable activities not just to non-commercial uses but to “reasonable” non-commercial uses – that was the last straw.
So how did OCLC get it so wrong? How did they end up with a policy that is so very un 2.0, so very unsharing? A policy that has librarians all over the web questioning its motives and its non-profit status? Terry Reese frames it in terms of power hungry monopolies, but I think it comes down to fear. The same fear that has publishers begging for interoperable DRM for e-books, the same fear that has music and movie companies continuing to sue their fans despite growing resistance. It’s the fear that the old business models don’t work anymore, and that the old businesses will die. OCLC likes the idea of Creative Commons licensing, likes the idea of open data, but what OCLC likes even more is survival. OCLC wants to embrace the librarianish ethos of sharing, but only if that sharing does not in any way threaten its revenue stream. This is the policy of an organization that is trying to protect its market share by restricting access to its content, instead of protecting its market share by providing products and services that are better than everyone else’s. Sure, there are overtones of monopoly, but OCLC’s monopoly on catalog data is fragile at best and its leaders know that. Rather, this is about resisting the dramatic changes that a web-based business model would require. One in which OCLC isn’t the only place to access catalog data, it’s the best place.
Additional readings (only includes material not linked in the post itself)
- Stefano’s Linotype: Rule #1 for Surviving Paradigm Shifts: Don’t S**t Where You Eat
- Libology Blog: OCLC WorldCat is the Tiger, not the Lady?
- Code4Lib Wiki: OCLC Policy Change
- Raw Thought: Stealing Your Library: The OCLC Powergrab
- blog.ecorrado.us: OCLC’s new Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records
- Rob Styles: OCLC Record Usage, Copyright, Contracts, and the Law
Hat tip to Jake Glenn for first telling me about the story and passing on many useful links.