OCLC and Data

The OCLC Record Use Policy Council today posted a draft of the WorldCat Rights and Responsibilities for the OCLC Cooperative.

This is the second go-around for updating the 1987 Guidelines for the Use and Transfer of OCLC-derived Records, which is in need of an update due to the changes in accessing and using data brought on by the expansion of the internet into the public realm.

The first attempt to update the guidelines in the Fall of 2008, then called the Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records (pdf), ran into a storm of criticism, including some from this blog.  I am not going to rehash those, but you can review my posts, which include links to quite a few facets of the debate, through my use of the OCLC Records Use Policy tag.

I strongly recommend  that the draft policy be read and understood by as many library people as possible, and that constructive and fair feedback be given to the Council, among our coworkers, and in social media (blogs, e-mail lists, etc.).

Links to commentary and resources can be found in the Code4Lib OCLC Policy Change wiki page.

I glanced through the document during my lunch hour this morning, and sat down to read through it with more care tonight.  I have purposely not sought out what others might have to say about the draft in order to allow my first impression to be my own.  In doing so, I have come to the following conclusions:

I can see that a great deal of effort and attention was given to creating this draft.  It strives to address the broad issues involved with creating and using data in a networked age, while attempting to ground the policy in the history and tradition of the OCLC cooperative.  I think the council deserves praise for seeking feedback and opening up the process to not only OCLC members, but also to interested members of the public.

However, I do feel that the draft fails in one significant aspect:  Data.

The word data is used only once in the 1987 Guidelines.  It is used five times in the 2008 Policy.  In the current draft, the word appears 38 times.

The problem with this is that OCLC doesn’t have any rights over the data contained in the records.  They have some rights on the records themselves, though there is debate over just what rights a cooperative organization has over member created records.

To state that the OCLC Cooperative has the right to manage and control their records can be supported.  To state the same thing about the public data contained within those records flies in the face of both case law and modern reality.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing the ruling for Feist v. Rural in 1991, had this to say about data:

“Although a compilation of facts may possess the requisite originality because the author typically chooses which facts to include, in what order to place them, and how to arrange the data so that readers may use them effectively, copyright protection extends only to those components of the work that are original to the author, not to the facts themselves.”

Apply that statement to a collection of MARC records downloaded from WorldCat.  Not only does this strongly suggest that the data contained in the records (Author, Title, ISBN, etc.) is not protected, but that the author (i.e. “creator”) of the record is the one who holds what protection does exist.  How many of the records contained in WorldCat were actually created by OCLC?  Very, very few, I suspect.

What does this all mean?  It means that we all need to recognize that controlling and/or restricting public data (as opposed to patron, personnel, and other such privileged information) is both self-defeating and ultimately counter-productive.

It means that OCLC should focus on providing the highest levels of service to both its members and the public.  It means that the future belongs to those who put the data to use in ways that best suit the needs and desires of the end user.  It means that OCLC as an organization should not attempt to control the data contained within their records.

Control of this sort is elusive.  It offers the illusion of  security and safety, but the time, money, and effort spent attempting to control what isn’t owned will ultimately leave them with less than they started with, and without the good will needed to rebuild.  The trick is to provide more of what is truly unique about the organization:  cooperative services and benefits.

Bibliographic data will get used in new and creative ways  — witness OpenLibrary and LibraryThing.  More of these types of services are coming, as well as concepts that we may not have even thought possible before now.  The question is:  will we be facilitators and partners in this process, or will we attempt to drag our heels and protect our “assets”?

One of these positions will put all of us (libraries, OCLC, and users) in a position to gain, so long as we are open to change and innovation.  The other position carries a strong risk, due to entrenchment and stagnation, of becoming obsolete.

Choose wisely… let the data be free, and focus on the cooperative.

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2 Responses to OCLC and Data

  1. Bryan says:

    Something came to mind when thinking about OCLC’s nextgen cataloging program. New records are derived from ONIX data and mashed up with other data mined from WorldCat. Do the resulting records, which OCLC creates, belong to OCLC?

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