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The OCLC Kerfuffle: In which I write much but come to few conclusions

I’ve been watching the OCLC policy change discussion unfold slowly over the last few weeks, and I’ve got to say, I’m flummoxed. On the one hand, I don’t like the new license. I agree with most of what’s been written about the potential dangers it poses to innovation and the odd irony that member institutions will pay large sums of money to hand over their data to OCLC so that OCLC can lock it down for them. (I’ve included links to key posts and documents down at the bottom of this post, for those who’d like to catch up.) On the other hand, who am I to claim that OCLC has no right to try to sustain itself financially?

For me, the topic hinges on three main questions:

  • Is this really a change, and if so, how significant of a change is it?
  • What do they really mean by “Reasonable Use”?
  • And what does this mean for those of us that aren’t in the business of creating and maintaining bibliographic systems?

So first of all, is this really a change?

Karen Calhoun of OCLC has written more than once that the new license is just a clarification of the old license and that it serves to protect the community’s investment in the WorldCat records. She commented on Aaron Swartz’s blog post that “the policy carries forward the principles, if not the wording of the current Guidelines, which have been in place since 1987.” Later she wrote on her own blog at length and again asserted:

The difference is not in the principles, then, but the environment in which the principles are applied. The Guidelines [meaning the old policy] came from the limited data sharing environment of the 1980s. The updated policy’s landscape is the Web and the incredibly dynamic data sharing environment it represents. (cite)

In other words, the old policy protected community investment in the cooperative at a time when mass data sharing was not the norm, and the new policy protects that same community investment in the current environment where the default assumption on the web is that if there’s a big pile of data out there, anyone who wants to can play with it and make it work for them.

I have no idea whether the old policy felt restrictive 21 years ago, but I know that the new one feels restrictive now. It seems to me that the paradigm shifted right out from under OCLC and that reinforcing the principles of information sharing from 21 years ago is akin to re-inventing the information searching environment of 10-20 years ago.

It also seems to me that if libraries invest time, effort, and money into building a massive dataset, the best return on that investment would be to have people (OCLC or anyone else) take that data and make it work for us and for our patrons. This is what we do when we invest in the stock market, or even put money into savings accounts. We effectively sign it over to whomever can take it and make it work for us. The way this new policy reads, it feels more like protecting our treasures by tucking them into a safe deposit box. We rent the space and gain no interest, causing our “investment” to depreciate over time.

So maybe we’re just protecting OCLC’s investment in our data. Personally, I’d feel better about the whole thing if they just came out and said that.

What about this “Reasonable Use clause?

There’s also one clause in the policy that I find disturbingly vague. It’s the clause that defines “reasonable use,” and serves a very similar function in this license as the Fair Use clause serves in copyright law. Here it is:

13. “Reasonable Use” means Use of WorldCat Records that is reasonable for the intended Non-Commercial Use and consistent with the intent of this Policy. Without limiting the foregoing, the term “Reasonable Use” does not include any Use of WorldCat Records that:

a. discourages the contribution of bibliographic and holdings data to WorldCat, thus damaging OCLC Members’ investment in WorldCat, and/or
b. substantially replicates the function, purpose, and/or size of WorldCat. Please see the FAQ for a discussion of Z39.50 for cataloging using WorldCat-derived bibliographic records.

As Greg Schwartz noted on this week’s Uncontrolled Vocabulary, there are a lot of weasel words here. How big, how related in function, and how related in purpose does a system have to be before it violates this clause? And then there are the conspicuous “and/or” weasel words that leave OCLC room to claim license violation if any part of this clause begins to make them uneasy.

Seems to me that the biggest violator of section 13.b in existence right now is the Library of Congress, and that makes no sense at all. But if you think about it, its catalog is massive and exactly duplicates most of the functions of WorldCat. LibraryThing is also massive, but serves such a completely different purpose that I can’t see how it harms the “investment” of the cooperative. If anything, its giving the cooperative ideas about what might be possible in our own catalogs given the data they produce.

Just as a side note, I wonder if they have to grant Google and other search engines the right to crawl

Implications for those us in the public services world?

So what. Why do I care? In my day-to-day work, I search WorldCat when I need it, and I’ll continue to do so. I don’t do cataloging work. I won’t be the one deciding whether or not to put the new field that links to OCLC’s license in our records. And I certainly don’t build discovery systems that would make use of WorldCat records.

Well, I worry about two things. First, that this will stall efforts to invent a discovery system that actually works, and works well — one that patrons are happy to use, and one that puts to good use all of the metadata that catalogers put so much time and effort into creating.

I also worry that this move might implode OCLC. It has the chance to take a hard look at its “principles” and come up with creative ways to position itself as the nexis of all bibliographic data on the web, or it could spark its potential user community to rebell and rebuild elsewhere. My favorite analogy for this comes from Steve Lawson’s blog where he writes:

Coincidentally, I was reading Matthew Battles’ Library: An Unquiet History today and came across this interesting tidbit on page 29 about the Library of Alexandria:

In an effort to stop the growth of the libraries at Rhodes and Pergamum, both of which threatened Alexandria’s preeminence, the city’s rulers banned the export of papyrus. The move backfired, however, spurring the Pergamenes to invent parchment (charta pergamenum), which for its strength and reusability would prove to be the preferred writing medium in Europe for more than a thousand years.

WorldCat has been making great strides forward recently, and I would hate to see it shoot itself in the foot over a piece of papyrus. It also has an incredible treasure trove of information, one that would be a shame to have to duplicate, and one that could yield huge dividends if invested wisely rather than stuffed into a safe deposit box.

Or is this the push we all needed?

For further reading:

Published inNewsSearch and Discovery


  1. Dorothea Dorothea

    What IS our investment in our data, and what returns ought we to expect on it? I think that’s the clarifying question here.

  2. Steve Lawson Steve Lawson

    As usual, you and I find ourselves in a similar boat. Two things I didn’t really work into my post:

    Has anyone who is not an OCLC employee come forward to say “this is really necessary and good, and helpful to OCLC member libraries and/or the public at large?”

    The policy and especially the section 13 that you highlight seems to depend on a certain amount of trust that OCLC won’t all of a sudden try to shut down projects it doesn’t like. And I dislike legalistic policies that depend on a “oh, just trust that we won’t enforce that to the full.”

  3. Iris Iris

    That *is* a good question, Dorothea. I look forward to someone more astute than I am to answer it.

    And I think you’ve hit on the major source of my discomfort with section 13, Steve. Vagueness of this sort requires trust that will always be tinged with a tiny bit of fear, and that tiny bit of fear will stifle creativity. I see that same thing happen with fair use decisions all the time, and even section 107 of copyright law (which is famously vague) gives a few concrete examples of things that are permissible when it says that “multiple copies for classroom use” count as fair. OCLC’s section 13 only gives negative examples, leaving very little room to imagine viable Reasonable Uses.

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