Over the next few weeks I’m going to try to approach this issue in a number of different ways. Here’s a first try.
Thought experiment. I walk into the Portland, ME public library and look up The Elusive Moose. Who owns the database record, with the title and subjects and so forth?
To qualify for the Library of Congresses Cataloging in Print program, Barefoot Books filled out forms and submitted the basic data. The Catalogers at the Library of Congress used that and some sample chapters and made the basic record record from that, providing the publisher with the core cataloging information it printed in the book.
Then people at three other companies improved the record–Ingram Library Services, Baker & Taylor (twice), and Yankee Book Peddler. After that catalogers at two public libraries worked on it–the Vancouver Public Library and the Southfield Public Library. Finally the Anchorage, Alaska School District added the finishing touches. No doubt they know from moose! (LibraryThing, located in Portland, ME knows about moose too!)
Whose record is it? The authors? Publisher? The companies? The public libraries? The school library? How about me, or nobody? Aren’t libraries supposed to be about free access to information?
The Answer. Right now, it’s unclear. Probably no one owns it. The Library of Congress did the most work, and, by law, their work is free to all. And anyway, the record is composed of facts, which can’t be copyrighted.
Come February, however, it will acquire a new owner, an organization known to few Americans and accountable to fewer, the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) of Dublin, Ohio. The contribution came late–after the Library of Congress had created the base record they uploaded it to OCLC so other libraries could have access to it. And their contribution was minimal–warehousing 1k of data and sending it over the (free) internet. And for that work they were very well paid, both directly and for the services they offer on top.
OCLC’s new license purports to offer carrots to libraries. But it’s mostly carrots from their own gardens. And it comes at a steep legal price, transforming the legal relationship between librarians and their labor, and making everyone else come begging to Dublin for information about books. OCLC will be asserting a perpetual, retroactive and explicitly viral license over the records–as good as ownership. The OCLC policy that will cover many if not most library records in the world, even at the LC and other national libraries, and is designed to spread to derivative works.* All use will be on OCLC terms–which, of course, like any such license, they can change at any time. The terms shut down the Open Library, a giant open-data cataloging project sponsored by the non-profit Internet Archive. And they shut down all commercial use of records–including LibraryThing’s, unless we go through their new owner.
Petitions. If this bothers you as much as it does me, check out the Stop the OCLC Powergrab Petition, put up by Aaron Swartz, Tech Lead at Open Library. Aaron also wrote an excellent blog post about the the issue.
If you’re a librarian, check out Elaine Sanchez’s Petition for OCLC to Collaboratively Re-write Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records.
BTW: Don’t worry too much about LibraryThing. One way or another we’ll get through this. More and more I’m confident either the Policy will change and OCLC will embrace and lead a future of openness and collaboration, or opposition to it will create what OCLC is trying to prevent—a free and open repository of high-quality bibliographic data.
*There are millions of “OCLC-derived” records at the LC. I think I’m going to write my next post trying to figure out what the Policy means for the LC and other federally-funded libraries.