On Community-Based Collaboration: Lesson From the OCLC Debacle

by Devanshu Mehta

Community-based collaboration or “Crowdsourcing” has become the buzzword in many industries- the idea that by fostering a community, you can solve many major problems through their collective wisdom without actually hiring people with… wisdom. Linux, Wikipedia, the recent Twitter Vote Report and many other projects are often cited as successful examples of this.

The nonprofit OCLC has a membership of over 69,000 libraries around the world. These libraries collaborate to create a database– WorldCat– of bibliographies that all the member libraries can use. It is a great system– or at least it was, until the recent introduction of their upcoming use policy. The two major concerns- via Terry’s Worklog- were:

  1. OCLC would require the license to be placed within the record. This takes the ownership of records away from the library and since it is only a link to the license, the license could be changed at any time without the knowledge of the linking library.
  2. WordCat data could not be used for creation of services– even non-profit– that may compete with it.

The first concern has been largely alleviated in a recent version of the OCLC FAQ, but the second one remains. Who really owns the database? Since it only applies to libraries who are members of OCLC (in contract), what prevents someone else from creating a competing service? And finally, can you really copyright a database?

There are many projects out there, like OpenLibrary, that are trying to create a truly open, non-commercial database of books that would run afoul of this clause. In reality, the problem is not in whether it will be enforced but in that this organization believes it is more than the sum of its parts. That OCLC– not its members– controls how and where the data should be used- data that was created by its members.

This is where OCLC is different from free and open source projects like Linux, Wikipedia and every Creative Commons or GPL licensed copyrighted work. There is no right to fork.

To everyone who contributes to community projects:

Always reserve the right to fork.

That is to say, you should always be able to take the marbles and go home. To fork, in open source projects, means to take all the code/data and create another project. This is made possible by the inherent “free”ness of GPL, CC, GFDL and other licenses. Many open source projects have been forked in the past because a sufficient chunk of the community didn’t like the rules they were being asked to comply with. Nobody controlled the code, so everyone controlled the code.

However, in the case of the OCLC debacle, via Annoyed Librarian:

To use a prison metaphor, it’s clear that librarians dropped the soap decades ago.

Or Stefano’s Linotype:

Basically, by using OCLC’s data you agree to protect their existence. And their monopoly (nobody else in the world does what they do, at the scale they do it). And with data that they didn’t even create.

In a time when everyone is using search engines as their first stop in finding answers, closing WorldCat further is a major step backwards. Like many other old-world companies, the OCLC is trying to remain relevant in the face of major paradigm shifts- in this regard, it is much like the Associated Press, which is losing relevance and support from member libraries (thanks Edward Vielmetti). If this was a commercial enterprise built by a million highly paid employees, it would make no difference what they did with their data. But this is a non-profit built on the backs of its members contributions.

As Princess Leia said:

The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

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