“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The belated news for today: OCLC has withdrawn the proposed new policy.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?