OCLC Declare OCLC Control Numbers Public Domain

ocn Little things mean a lot.  Little things that are misunderstood often mean a lot more.

Take the OCLC Control Number, often known as the OCN, for instance.

Every time an OCLC bibliographic record is created in WorldCat it is given a unique number from a sequential set – a process that has already taken place over a billion times.  The individual number can be found represented in the record it is associated with.  Over time these numbers have become a useful part of the processing of not only OCLC and its member libraries but, as a unique identifier proliferated across the library domain, by partners, publishers and many others.

Like anything that has been around for many years, assumptions and even myths have grown around the purpose and status of this little string of digits.  Many stem from a period when there was concern, being voiced by several including me at the time, about the potentially over restrictive reuse policy for records created by OCLC and its member libraries.  It became assumed by some, that the way to tell if a bibliographic record was an OCLC record was to see if it contained an OCN.  The effect was that some people and organisations invested effort in creating processes to remove OCNs from their records.  Processes that I believe, in a few cases, are still in place.

So in the current and future climate of open sharing of data, where for instance WorldCat Linked Data, is published under an open data license, such assumptions and practices are an anomaly.

I signalled that OCLC were looking at this, in my session (Linked Data Progress), at IFLA in Singapore a few weeks ago. I am now pleased to say that the wording I was hinting at has now appeared on the relevant pages of the OCLC web site:

Use of the OCLC Control Number (OCN)
OCLC considers the OCLC Control Number (OCN) to be an important data element, separate from the rest of the data included in bibliographic records. The OCN identifies the record, but is not part of the record itself. It is used in a variety of human and machine-readable processes, both on its own and in subsequent manipulations of catalog data. OCLC makes no copyright claims in individual bibliographic elements nor does it make any intellectual property claims to the OCLC Control Number. Therefore, the OCN can be treated as if it is in the public domain and can be included in any data exposure mechanism or activity as public domain data. OCLC, in fact, encourages these uses as they provide the opportunity for libraries to make useful connections between different bibliographic systems and services, as well as to information in other domains.

The announcement of this confirmation/clarification of the status of OCNs was made yesterday by my colleague Jim Michalko on the Hanging Together blog.

When discussing this with a few people, one question often came up – Why just declare OCNs as public domain, why not license them as such? The following answer from the OCLC website, I believe explains why:

The OCN is an individual bibliographic element, and OCLC doesn’t make any copyright claims either way on specific data elements. The OCN can be used by other institutions in ways that, at an aggregate level, may have varying copyright assertions. Making a positive, specific claim that the OCN is in the public domain might interfere with the copyrights of others in those situations.

As I said, this is a little thing, but if it clears up some misunderstandings and consequential anomalies, it will contribute the usefulness of OCNs and ease the path towards a more open and shared data environment.

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