Landgrab For Ownership Of Library Catalog Data
from the not-good dept
There’s been an interesting (and somewhat troubling) behind the scenes fight going on concerning library catalog data over the past few months. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) is a nonprofit, made up of member libraries that basically tries to help facilitate access to information among libraries. That seems like a good thing. One of its offerings is WorldCat — basically a big online catalog of library collections, so that it’s easy for anyone to find books that are available at other libraries. This, obviously, seems quite useful, and many libraries agree and are a part of WorldCat. However, a month ago, OCLC announced new policies for WorldCat that effectively allowed OCLC to claim ownership over the records that any library put in its system — and, upon doing so, limiting what libraries could do with that data (such as, say, giving it to competing cataloging services).
This has many in the library community quite reasonably worried, with specific questions about who should be allowed to “own” library records. As that last link shows, there are a number of different people and organizations involved in the creation of a basic library database record, and basically the only thing OCLC is doing is putting it online. It’s difficult to see how they can then claim ownership of it.
While this may be new in the library space, this type of debate has raged for years in other arenas, and some of the findings from those earlier battles may be instructive. The issue has to do with the concept of “database rights.” Normally, factual information is not subject to any sort of copyright or ownership rights for rather obvious reasons (how do you own a fact?). However, some believe that there should be separate “database rights” that allow ownership of the compilation of certain factual information. For the most part, the US has denied this right, while Europe has allowed it — and the results have shown, quite clearly, that the US made the right decision. Ownership of database rights tends to damaging to business while allowing the data to remain free can help build booming industries.
In this case, the scenario is a little different, because OCLC isn’t trying to claim a government backed “database right” over the content, but instead wants to achieve the same effective result via a unilateral change to its terms of service — including a bit of viral licensing code that forces the “ownership” to travel with the data. OCLC doesn’t really appear to have any legal authority here, but are trying to force it through by contract — for which I’d say there’s a decent chance it wouldn’t hold up in court, though no one wants it to get that far. Between the unilateral change, the claiming of ownership of others’ works (including public domain contributions from the Library of Congress) and the lack of database copyrights, you could probably make a good argument that the OCLC’s policy change has no weight. Still, in the short term, a much better solution would be for OCLC to back off its silly ownership claim, recognize the power of open sharing of information, and focus on adding additional benefits and services for why libraries should want to work with OCLC over competitors, rather than trying to use slimy contract terms to block out competitors. And, of course, hopefully OCLC learns that pissing off your partners and customers by dumping draconian ownership claims on them is never a good business strategy.