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Open Bibliographic Data Management Planning Grant – Project Planning Survey

By Ruth Szpunar, Consultant

As part of the planning process for this grant, this report gives a brief overview of OCLC, WorldCat, and bibliographic data, along with alternatives to WorldCat for bibliographic data records. The report was last updated on September 27, 2022.

OCLC, WorldCat, and bibliographic data

In November 2008, OCLC announced their plans to update their acceptable use policy for WorldCat records, which hadn’t been changed since 1987. After much public outcry, they revised the policy and released a final version in June of 2010.

Library bloggers were happier with the final version but still had some critiques:

  • WorldCat Rights and Responsibilities for the OCLC Cooperative – Terry Reese
    • “My take is that the document is fuzzy enough that appropriate use is left, in large measure, up to the individual organizations.  Does this allow libraries to give records to 3rd party groups like Open Library or simply post their metadata, en-masse, to an ftp server for download?  If you believe that it does, I think so.”
  • Open Bibliographic Data: How Should the Ecosystem Work? – John Wilkin 
    • “The problem with both the arguments OCLC makes and many of the arguments for openness seem to be predicated on the view that bibliographic data are largely inert, lifeless “records” and that these records are the units that should be distributed and consumed. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
  • National Library of Sweden and OCLC fail to agree – Karen Coyle
    • In 2011, the National Library of Sweden decided not to participate in WorldCat because their bibliographic data is completely open and placing it in WorldCat would subject it to OCLC’s policies. 

Bloggers suggested that OCLC should instead break itself up into multiple pieces:

  • One Possible OCLC Solution – Rick Mason
    • Divide OCLC into two divisions, a non-profit with all of the bibliographic records, and a for-profit which would include all other OCLC services.
  • What would it look like if OCLC was broken up? – Terry Reese
    • Divide OCLC into two components: membership and vendor
  • Will OCLC move to a service-oriented business model for bibliographic data? – John Mark Ockerbloom
    • “I think OCLC needs to make a choice here:   Will they try to retain a proprietary interest in libraries’ shared cataloging, and stay neutral towards other entities (such as ILS vendors) that provide services on this cataloging?  Or will they move into competing with others to provide services on our collective data, while relinquishing their proprietary claims on it?”  

In 2009, the Library of Congress hired R2 Consulting to “investigate and describe current approaches to the creation and distribution of MARC records in US and Canadian libraries.” They found that there were “approximately 200 organizations that create, sell, and/or distribute MARC records and/or MARC services to North American libraries.”

Study of the North American MARC Records Marketplace – October 2009 

RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois Library System) has been looking for alternatives to OCLC since at least 2015, when the following report was written. An Environmental Scan of OCLC Alternatives: A Final Report Prepared for RAILS.

The report recognizes SkyRiver as a “considerably” cheaper option for cataloging records and was also published as a scholarly article which details the alternatives available at the time. 

Matthews, J. R. (2016). An environmental scan of OCLC alternatives: a management perspective. Public Library Quarterly, 35(3), 175-187.

Lawsuit against OCLC – SkyRiver

SkyRiver launched a bibliographic utility service on October 6, 2009 as a “clear, low-cost alternative for cooperative cataloging” with “unlimited access to the SkyRiver database, unlimited record requesting, unlimited user licenses and data transfer.” Source

On July 28, 2010, SkyRiver Technology Solutions and Innovative Interfaces, Inc. filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court Northern District of California against OCLC asserting that OCLC was operating as a monopoly in multiple sectors, including that of bibliographic metadata, interlibrary loan, and library automation, and was engaging in anticompetitive business practices. The lawsuit was withdrawn on Mar 5, 2013. Source

The most thorough guide to the case resided on Marshall Breeding’s Library Technology Guides site but has been taken down. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, it can still be viewed. 

Guide to the SkyRiver vs. OCLC lawsuit

This site contains a description of the many filings in the case, OCLC’s statements about the lawsuit, and a variety of articles and commentaries. 

Additionally, all of the filings of the case can easily be read on the Justia website.

Ellen Richardson has written a thorough academic article as part of her MLIS classwork:

Ellen Richardson (2012) Ain’t No (Sky)River Wide Enough to Keep Me from Getting to You: SkyRiver, Innovative, OCLC, and the Fight for Control over the Bibliographic Data, Cataloging Services, ILL, and ILS Markets, Legal Reference Services Quarterly, 31:1, 37-64.

“At the heart of the lawsuit for both sides is the issue of who owns bibliographic data and catalog records. That both SkyRiver and OCLC gloss over this question is telling. Of particular interest is where SkyRiver has gotten the records in its database. According to SkyRiver, the records are from the Library of Congress, however, others have speculated that it is Z39.50 data harvested from other libraries without their knowledge or consent.”

Many prominent bloggers shared their thoughts on this issue, including Karen Schneider: 

OCLC’s Crisis Moment

Blog Post Comment: “Hi y’all. I am writing from WalMart Libraryland. And I am just saying that there are some hard choices to be made here. Sure I’d love to shop at the Apple store. I’d love to shop at Barney’s or Neiman Marcus, but then I wouldn’t have any shoes, or a coat for winter. I would really, really like to continue my OCLC Connexion subscription, in fact I hyperventilate at the thought of it ending within the month, but then the county system I work for would have to close some library branches in towns that don’t even have WalMart, or have no new books on the shelves. I hate being put in the position of choosing between OCLC and any library service at all to a rural community of 90,000 people. But there ya go. OCLC is not cooperating with us. They have effectively priced themselves out of the reach of many cooperating small and/or rural public libraries, most of whose constituents have a WalMart mentality. Am I supposed to say “let them eat cake”? The issue is so much more vast than whether one goes for quality or cheap service. In this case it is coming down to whether there is any library service at all. Our society is not supporting libraries.” – August 1, 2010

Lawsuit filed by OCLC – Clarivate and MetaDoor

In March of 2022, Ex Libris (owned by Clarivate) began to market and advertise a new product called MetaDoor.  You can see one such marketing email here.  Additionally, Ex Libris began to discuss the product at conferences, such as at the 2022 GIL Users Group Meeting

In June of 2022, OCLC filed a lawsuit against Clarivate, claiming the following four counts:

  1. Tortious interference with contractual relationships
  2. Conspiracy to tortiously interfere with contractual relationship
  3. Tortious interference with prospective business relationships
  4. Conspiracy to tortiously interfere with prospective business relationships

Brief description of the lawsuit

Full legal documents

OCLC statement

Initial responses to the lawsuit “suggested the development of library-led, open source cataloging that doesn’t involve either company.” Info Pros React to OCLC’s Lawsuit Against Clarivate 

Todd Carpenter has also written a thoughtful analysis of the lawsuit. Let the Metadata Wars Begin – The Scholarly Kitchen 

Alternatives to OCLC WorldCat for bibliographic data

This list was compiled solely by visiting vendor websites and conducting Google searches.