Yes, that OCLC Kerfuffle

Via Jessamyn and a slew of emails this weekend from TTW Readers:

I need to catch up on all of these posts. Jessamyn suggested this one as

So, OCLC decides to update its data licensing policy after 21 years because, quote: “The Guidelineshave also been frequently faulted for their ambiguity about WorldCat data sharing rights and conditions.”

Having had to deal with such ambiguity myself when discussing about releasing the Barton Library data from the MIT Libraries, I have to say that I very much welcomed any sort of update in clarification and a more modern and up-to-date licensing agreement between OCLC and its members libraries, if only to focus more precisely what is wrong with it.

Some people believe that OCLC is a thing of the past, created in an era where data interchange and inter-librarian communication was hard, more expensive and much harder to coordinate and destined to succumb to some cheaper and higher quality grass-root approach that will emerge spontaneously on the internet.

I personally don’t subscribe to that vision: I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the Apache Group turning into the Apache Software Foundation and growing from a few tens of people to thousands, from a relatively unknown bunch of geeks to a pillar of the web ecosystem, a business-school subject and a poster child for modern bottom-up self-organization.

My point being that any grass-root approach that will get big enough to take on OCLC on the metadata collection and redistribution service that libraries need will have to incorporate under the pressure of its users (if only for legal liability protection) and will have to find an answer to the same set of problems (policy, governance, financial sustainability) that OCLC has.

So, OCLC, or another non-profit entity, is necessary to exist in this space, no matter how the data is generated and what license regulates its sharing.

Unfortunately, OCLC itself seems to be believe they are a thing of the past, that they are going to fall victim of the drop of data distribution and coordination costs, much like the record industry, and that they have to fight with their teeth to avoid to succumb to the web-powered winter of data monopolies.

I don’t see any other explanation for a policy that prevents people from competing with them, with data they don’t own and that others contributed to them: if they thought their existence was not in danger, and their membership loyal, why would they want to prevent others from competing with them?

Last time somebody tried a similar anti-competitive move, BitKeeper comes to mind, it unleashed a tremendous amount of frustration-generated creative effort that not only displaced and totally evaporated BitKeeper’s position in that market overnight, but also reshaped the entire market because of some of the innovation that was created in the process.

It is true that OCLC’s monopoly position in this market is eroding: it is only a matter of time geek techy librarians catalyze enough coordination to eventually re-route even just a tiny fraction of the cataloging effort of librarians around the world to another data pool, one that feels more like an open Library of Congress and less like a librarian version of Microsoft.

That last line is wonderful. I am aching for the time when the “geek techy librarians” coordinate enough to make some really big changes in library land: with OCLC, with vendors, with the ILS providers. Indeed.

Read the whole post. it’s a good one.