Thoughts about the SkyRiver/OCLC lawsuit

By reeset / On / In Innovative Interfaces, OCLC

So this is what it has come to…two iconic (III and OCLC that is) library software vendors wrestling in court.  Not that I think this is all that surprising…too bad…but not particularly surprising.  In fact, I think that many folks in the library community probably seen this coming.  For me, the canary in the mine, so to speak, has been the OCLC record use policy revision process.  Starting with the first attempt in Nov. 2008 which plain sucked and finishing with the present revision, which pretty much guaranteed a lawsuit, the records use policy has been an interesting illustration of what is both working and broken with OCLC.  Why – because the record use policy linked the use of the records to OCLC’s WorldCat service.  The policy, as it stands, doesn’t include just a list of rights and responsibilities, but spells out why it is needed…to protect the WorldCat database.  My personal opinion, as written here, is that any record use policy should have been written separate from WorldCat.  Joining the two together is problematic, and this lawsuit demonstrates how. 

As more and more time passes, I’m convinced that OCLC, as it exists today, is of two minds.  There is the membership mind and the vendor mind.  The problem that libraries and library vendors face, is that in many circumstances, the vendor side of OCLC is unduly influencing the membership side of the organization.  I think that the final record use policy is a good example of this, as OCLC placed a number of artificial walls around the WorldCat database – walls that really do nothing but protect OCLC’s web scale initiatives by putting up artificial barriers.

This is one of the reasons why I had suggested the need for OCLC to consider break itself up (http://blog.reeset.net/archives/579) back in Nov. 2008.  The problem, as I seen it then, is that as long as OCLC continues to move and compete within the vendor space, this tension between itself as a membership governed coop and as a vender organization will be present.  It will become increasingly difficult for OCLC to make decisions solely in respect to the memberships long-term needs, if those decisions must also be measured against the products and services that OCLC’s vendor operations handle.  Regardless of how this lawsuit with III is resolved, I don’t think that it will be the end of the litigation.  Over the past year, I’ve encountered too many vendors that are becoming more open with their feelings that OCLC is unfairly hiding behind their status as a tax-free organization to monopolize the library space.  If OCLC can demonstrate that its web scale services will work for larger ACRL libraries, I think that more and more vendors will continue to push back.  Vendors will continue to make their displeasure known and the membership is going to have to ask itself how many lawsuits its willing to endure.

I still believe that the simplest solution to this, however, would be breaking up the OCLC organization.  I think it would ultimately be good for OCLC and libraries.  It would allow OCLC’s vendor units to compete without having to worry about potential lawsuits and it would give OCLC’s research arms the ability to do research without the ever constant need to productize their work.  And there is actually a number of precedents to this type of thinking.  Universities for one, do this all the time.  Publically funded research or development is commercialized under umbrella organizations.  Why couldn’t OCLC do the same.  

In some ways, I see this lawsuit mirroring the current discussions related to net neutrality.  Should all information be treated as equal on the web.  In a sense, that’s what III is asking OCLC to provide, a kind of net neutrality for libraries.  This idea that WorldCat represents a core information pipe within the library community, and should be made open to the entire library community (both vendor and non-vendor) for a reasonable fee.  Libraries currently pay a fee for access (our memberships) – likewise, vendors could pay a reasonable fee to access and develop against the WorldCat bibliographic and holdings database. 

To take this further, when considering net neutrality, I believe that the library community would be nearly unanimous in supporting this as a necessary requirement for the future.  It’s a problem that we feel we have a stake in since librarians ultimately trade in information.  Likewise, I think that libraries will need to decide what type of organization to they want OCLC to be.  As a membership organization, libraries still have some power to shape the long-term vision of the OCLC cooperative.  So I wonder when librarians will start to push OCLC to embrace the same tenants of open and fair access to data that we currently demand from other vendors/information providers.  OCLC is ours, and how we handle this resource will ultimately determine how others view the library community as a whole.  In the end, will we pursue OCLC to reflect the communities larger vision and reflect our professional ethics in respect to open data and cooperation or will the larger information community simply look at the library community as a bunch of hypocrites – hypocrites that demand open data from other communities but isn’t will to reciprocate when the data is our own. 

–TR

2 thoughts on “Thoughts about the SkyRiver/OCLC lawsuit

  1. Once this lawsuit, the settlement with Google Books, and the suit against Hathi Trust are all put to rest, and RDA and a bibliographic framework start to emerge, it will be interesting to see what kind of bibliographic data is left standing, who’s willing to stand by it, and whether libraries are still trusted to have a role in maintaining it.