“Read My Lips: No New Policy” Deja Vu(?)

The belated news for today: OCLC has withdrawn the proposed new policy. They have reaffirmed the 1987 guidelines and will draft a new proposal with more membership input in the future.

It will be interesting to see how the process of creating the new policy will go. Nonetheless, the more interesting part of this story is the fact that history has repeated itself yet again. OCLC’s copyrighting of the bibliographic database in the 1980s saw immense resistance, leading up to the 1987 guidelines compromise. The early 1990s saw the Library of Congress trying to restrict access to their records within the US by changing the pricing structure of redistributing LC records, and LC failed spectacularly. I can’t help to notice some patterns between those three events:

Horrible PR decisions. All three events suffered from lack of communication between entity/business and community/customers. All three announced their final proposals without contemplating the consequences of their announcements. Even if was apparent that the company was going to go one direction (ex. OCLC’s copyright decision was heavily telegraphed during its push in the late 1970s by trying to create more restrictive contracts),  previous actions alone did not mean that the company’s motives behind the proposal would be widely understood.

Data restriction murkiness. Every event had questions arise about the legality of restricting bibliographic data. The complexity of US copyright law around bibliographic data (especially electronic data) creates an environment ripe for the propagation of grey areas. Is bibliographic data fact and therefore not copyrightable? Does changing the price structure for LC record distribution apply copyright-like controls to government data for US institutions? Can one entity/individual copyright a set of bibliographic data by applying the “selection, creativity, and arrangement” argument?

Culture clash. OCLC started off as a member cooperative, but has since drifted towards a traditional business model in the last couple decades. Nonetheless, while OCLC’s culture changed, the library culture, or more specifically the ideas around sharing and distribution of bibliographic data, did not.  It was this culture clash (heightened by PR mistakes) that fueled the heated dissent and discussion of OCLC’s policy event. In short, claiming ownership on something that was created by a community simply never goes well.

Again, it will be interesting to see where the new policy discussion goes in the future. Will we see another compromise like we saw in 1987, or will the matter drop all together, like LC’s pricing proposal?

OCLC Policy Change Update

For those of you who have been following the OCLC policy change situation (if not, I recommend the OCLC Policy Change page on the Code4Lib wiki to get yourself acquainted), the Review Board of Shared Data Creation and Stewardship chair presented to the Members Council on May 18th. In the preliminary report, the review board recommends OCLC to  withdraw the proposed policy and start from square one, this time allowing for participation from the OCLC membership masses and more transparency.

While many in the blogosphere celebrated the announcement, the important thing to keep in mind is that this is a recommendation, and a preliminary one at that. The final report could have the board recommending that OCLC should do something completely different. In addition, the board’s recommendations are just that – recommendations. OCLC is not bound to the board. Then again, if OCLC blatantly disregards the recommendations, then the semi-quiet grumblings questioning OCLC’s “membership driven” structure will become near to a deafening roar. That is dependent if OCLC still wants to be a “membership driven” organization, of course. With their entry into the ILS market, OCLC takes yet another step towards commercial vendorship. It is true that OCLC did have the Ohio legislature give it a special non-profit status; however, it may come to a point in time where OCLC decides to shed the special status and take its place with the other for-profit vendors. Where would that leave the member-created database, if OCLC goes formally for-profit?

Stay tuned…