Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stealing your library

This story from Aaron Swartz on the surface is probably mostly of interest to academics and library geeks but it has a potential impact reaching far beyond that interest base. It is just such obtuse, mainly invisible power struggles that will define the future shape of our information age. (Thanks to Imran Ghory via the ORG list for the pointer).

"This is the story of a monster, a sorcerer's apprentice, a nice little thing that's grown and grown until it's gotten out of hand and turned on its creators. It's the story of a little-known organization called OCLC (the Online Computer Library Center) that is -- no joke -- trying to steal your library, all of our libraries, for itself.

OCLC was founded in 1967 by Fred Kilgour, a pioneering Ohio librarian, with a simple idea: Instead of having every library in the country separately catalog a book -- laboriously entering its title, author, and subjects in just the right format -- why not have one person enter the cataloging information, upload it to a central computer, and then let everyone else download a copy from there?

It was called WorldCat, for World Catalog, and it's been a resounding success. Today it has around 50 million book records. But OCLC, the group that owns and operates it, has been a different story. It started small -- a little office in Ohio, a set of membership dues to share the cost of running the servers. But OCLC's control passed from librarians and academics to business people (its senior executive comes from consulting firm Deloitte & Touche). They realized they had a monopoly on their hands and as costs for running servers have gone down, their prices have gone up. They charge you once to get your records added to WorldCat and charge you again to get them back out and charge you a third time for a whole series of additional fees and services...

They've used their power and influence to put other library suppliers out of business so they can sell the same products themselves. And, throughout it all, they've become increasingly closed, even secretive. Not wanting to disrupt the money flow, OCLC has dragged its feet in getting library records on the Web. It wasn't until a couple years ago that they finally put up a WorldCat website, and even then they've tried to keep a tight lid on it. Only Google and Yahoo are allowed to look at more than a handful of pages...

All this was bad, but it was tolerable. At least folks could build an alternative to OCLC. So that's what I and others have been doing -- Open Library provides a free collection of over 20 million book records that anyone can browse, download, contribute to, and reuse for absolutely free. Naturally, OCLC hasn't been a fan. They've been trying to kill it from the beginning -- threatening its funders with lawsuits, insulting it in the press, and putting pressure on member libraries not to cooperate. (Again, notice the reversal: an organization libraries create to help them has now become so powerful that it is forcing libraries to help it.)

But recently, it's gone one step way too far. Not satisfied with controlling the world's largest source of book information, it wants to take over all the smaller ones as well. It's now demanding that every library that uses WorldCat give control over all its catalog records to OCLC. It literally is asking libraries to put an OCLC policy notice on every book record in their catalog. It wants to own every library.

It's not just Open Library that's at risk here -- LibraryThing, Zotero, even some new Wikipedia features being developed are threatened. Basically anything that uses information about books is going to be a victim of this unprecedented powergrab. It's a scary thought.

Fortunately, the new rules haven't gone into effect yet and it's not too late to stop them. But we need your help. Please, spread the word about this disaster and share this blog post. Sign our petition demanding that they stop. And, if you're a librarian or at a library, there's a lot more you can do. First, you can share your library catalog now, before the new policy takes effect. Second, you put your own license on the records you contribute to OCLC, insisting that the entire catalog they appear in must be available under open terms. And third, you can use your OCLC membership status to pressure the organization to listen to libraries instead of dictating to them."

In developments since this initial blog post, the OCLC has denied Swartz's claims, he has responded and you can find more details on the OCLC policy change wiki set up to track the story and at which is hosting the petition.

In summary it's a bit of a complicated tale but it would appear that the policy change means that libraries using WorldCat would no longer own their own data (or more accurately metadata I suppose). It would be owned by the OCLC which, if I'm reading it correctly, could facilitate an OCLC monopoly on future library cloud computing services. Not something to be taken lightly.

At its heart this is one of those 'building on the shoulders of giants' intellectual property landgrab scenarios. The WorldCat records are the result of the collective energy and work of countless librarians and catalogers, a large proportion of which worked in publicly funded libraries, around the world since 1967. It would seem somewhat anomalous therefore that any single organisation, especially one to which those records have been freely provided for the greater good, should stake an ownership claim over the product of such efforts. OCLC founder, Fred Kilgour, cared deeply about open/free access to knowledge. I wonder what he would have made of it all?

Update: More locally Odinance Survey has been reiterating its licence restrictions.


Say you work in a local authority. Being helpful, you want people to be able to find the public toilets in your area via an online map. So you look on your in-house mapping system for the locations of those toilets (which your council built, maintains and cleans, and whose location you originally fed into the in-house map), and begin feeding their positions on to Google Maps, Microsoft Live and Yahoo's Maps.

According to Ordnance Survey, the government's mapping agency, you've just broken its copyright, because the map you checked is licensed from it. And your council licence, like most OS licences, doesn't allow you to put data derived from an OS map on to the world-visible Google Maps - even though Google's maps are also licensed from OS.

In short, you're not allowed to put data you created (the toilets' locations), and then provided to OS, on to a different map - even though that new map is licensed from OS. You, or the council, could be sued. Last month OS sent a two-page letter reiterating its licensing restrictions, ostensibly as "guidance" to help councils considering using Google Maps. Though it might just seem like a licensing quirk, the re-assertion by OS of its rights is a high-stakes political move whose effects could be far-reaching."

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