Information Business Meets Copyright Policy

Matthew Dames wrote an awesome column in Information Today in April, titled Information Business Meets Copyright Policy that I just have to mention.

First, I have kept out of the OCLC policy change argument here on this blog because I’m not a member of an OCLC library and did feel a bit overwhelmed by everything – overwhelmed and a bit confused. Dames has made it clear to me and I want to point you all to his column so that you too (if you were in my boat) can understand the ramifications of the policy change.

Dames starts by explaining copyright law and how information cannot be copyrighted – so a MARC record in theory can’t be copyrighted – but then what about the added information we (as catalogers) put in – the corrections and summaries and notes? Dames explains all of this – but in the end it boils down to the fact that this new “policy” isn’t a policy at all – but a contract:

The OCLC “Policy for Use and Transfer of World- Cat Records” is not a policy; it is a unilateral contract in which OCLC claims complete and exclusive ownership over all records in the WorldCat database, regardless of whether those records are factual (and therefore in the public domain) and regardless of the legitimate joint copyright claim that thousands of members might otherwise have in innumerable records that contain original cataloging.

The OCLC contract is no different than the “policy” change Facebook issued in February, a change that also sought ownership over members’ factual contributions and personal information. One important distinction between the Facebook contract maneuver and OCLC’s gambit is that Facebook’s data grab involved personal information and involved members’ privacy. That is not at issue in the OCLC controversy. The other important distinction between the Facebook maneuver and OCLC’s data grab is that Facebook unequivocally reversed its policy after a week of heavy criticism. As of this writing and more than 3 months after OCLC announced the contract change, and at least 2 months after the information community began outlining the problems with that change, OCLC has yet to pull the contract off the table.

The first quoted paragraph leads me to another question. What if I work for an organization who has signed a contract with OCLC? I didn’t sign that contract- shouldn’t my work stay my work?

The second paragraph really stirs up some things for me. #1 we’re librarians and we’re supposed to want to collaborate and work together and share information – but in reality the people who are being vocal about this aren’t enough to get the policy completely revoked. In the case of Facebook nearly every member stood up and said “Absolutely not!” Now you might be thinking – there are more people on Facebook than there are librarians – but that’s not the point – the point is that you need a critical mass – and right now we just have the same people we always see at the forefront of library issues speaking out.

Anyway, thanks to Matthew Dames I have a new understanding – and if you’re confused then maybe you should read his article too.


  1. If you work for an organization, that organization owns the copyright to any work you do as part of your job, not you. Assuming the work is copyrightable.

    If it’s not copyrightable because it’s data, then nobody owns the copyright to it. In some countries, there may be other rights you have. In the US, not so much. So if there are no rights you have, then OCLC or anybody else can take it and do what they will with it.

    If OCLC takes it, and then before sharing it with someone else makes them promise not to do certain things by contract, that’s got nothing to do with you or your employer anymore.

  2. I’ve been trying to figure out why the OCLC announcement didn’t bother me nearly as much as the Facebook SNAFU did. I think part of it is that I already feel compensated by my workplace for the work that I do — and so I don’t feel a sense of loss if someone else profits further from what I did at work.

    I also don’t feel like it’s realistic to expect that I personally could profit outside of my job from enriching catalog records — whereas with the Facebook example, I think I always harbor the idea that maybe someday if I publish a book about my life, it would be awkward if Facebook had the rights to most of my notes and personal photos.

    I’m sharing my things in Facebook with a select group of people I “friend” and ostensibly I trust them not to steal my ideas. While cataloging is real work and takes creativity, I don’t really think of it as having some inherent “idea” value that can be copyrighted. It feels a bit like copyrighting a finished maze solution, or a game of chess — and for some reason that act seems less invasive then copyrighting my personal essays.

    I think you make a valid point however, and will think about it further this weekend.

  3. That makes perfect sense!!! I never thought of it like that. I guess for me it’s the fact that information should not be limited in any way – it should all be open and available for all to benefit from – it’s not a matter of cost or compensation for me.

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