24:3 (2009:09) 24th Conference: Strategy Session: What Do You Get When You Cross a License with XML?

September 3, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Conference Reports, Strategy Sessions | Leave a comment

What Do You Get When You Cross a License with XML? A: ONIX-PL

Todd Carpenter, NISO
Reported by Selina Lin

Mr. Carpenter, the Managing Director of NISO (National Information Standards Organization) began his presentation with an overview of NISO’s organization, its membership composition and scope.  He then gave the definitions of the word “license” as verb and noun.  In today’s world, licenses are everywhere – in fine print in software products, in Internet e-commerce – but people rarely read them due to their complexities.  As libraries’ acquisitions transitioned from print to electronic resources in the late 1990s, libraries and publishers invested tremendous amount of time and energy in negotiating licenses.  Managing the rapidly growing electronic collections became a daunting challenge.  It is against this backdrop that the impetus for the need to standardize licensing procedures was born.

The timeline of ONIX-PL’s development dates back to November 22, 2000, when Karen Calhoun, formerly at Cornell University Libraries, posted a message to the ALCTS technical services listserv asking, “How are people managing bibliographic, licensing, evaluation, troubleshooting, etc., data about licensed networked resources?”  The ensuing conversations led the Digital Libraries Federation (DLF) to conduct a survey in January 2001, which identified digital collection development as the single greatest challenge by the respondents.  With DLF’s support, Timothy D. Jewell of the University of Washington and Adam Chandler of the Cornell University Libraries conducted this research and published a report in July 2001.  Based on their work, DLF launched the Electronic Resources Management Initiative (ERMI) in 2002, issued an initial report in August 2004 and a final report, ERMI 2, in December 2008.  ERMI’s stated goal is to “… develop common specifications and tools for managing the license agreements, related administrative information, and internal processes associated with collections of licensed electronic resources.”

The 2004 DLF-ERMI report, http://www.diglib.org/pubs/dlf102/, includes two flowchart diagrams of workflows for print and electronic resources in acquisitions and ongoing maintenance.  They highlight the similarities and differences between the two processes.  The substantial differences in the procedure for electronic resources lie in the fact that they routinely require a licensing process, and may pose technical difficulties for implementation.

The ERMI reports recommended the following areas for exploration and development:

  • Management systems, now ERMs
  • Management of usage data, SUSHI
  • Define license terminology, ERMI data dictionary
  • Training community on how to encode licenses
  • Exchange of items, LEWG, Joint License Expression Work Group, ONIX-PL
  • Cost-per- use calculation data, CORE

The benefits of encoding licenses, storing and sharing them in an electronic format include: increased awareness of the terms; greater ease in sharing terms with users; improved compliance with terms and clarity about what is in a license; better, faster and easier negotiation based on clearer understandings.

The initial ERMI project led to the formation of the License Expression Working Group (LEWG) consisting of representatives from NISO, the European Book Sector Electronic Data Interchange Group (EDItEUR), DLF, and the Publishers Licensing Society (PLS).  The group worked to develop a single standard for the exchange of license information between publishers and libraries.  This group mapped ERMI license terms, upon which many ERM systems are structured, to the existing ONIX-PL.  The LEWG was officially disbanded in August 2008 and its work subsumed by the joint NISO/EDItEUR ONIX-PL Working Group.

So, what is ONIX-PL?  ONIX is an acronym for Online Information Exchange, and is part of a family of XML schemas representing publishing industry product information; PL stands for Publications Licenses.  In a nutshell, it is “a structure for making the content of a license machine-readable” in XML format, a tool to make license terms and conditions more accessible, and is extensible for additional terms from a dictionary in the future.

On the other hand, ONIX-PL is not a rights expression language.  It does not prevent or enable access to digital content.  It expresses content of a license, but is not a license.  Complete translation of license into ONIX-PL is not required.  Also, the information encoded into an ONIX-PL record is open to interpretation.
OPLE (ONIX-PL Editor) version 1.0, was developed by EDItEUR as an open source software package to support the creation and maintenance of ONIX-PL expressions.  It is a web-based tool and works with all the major browsers.  Current users of ONIX-PL include UK’s Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), the Publishers Licensing Society, Nature magazine, Springer, Elsevier, Oxford University Press, and the Southern California Electronic Library Consortium (SCELC).  The goal is to have at least five major publisher implementations by the end of 2009.

Two potential future directions for ONIX-PL are a possible JISC-funded initiative to create a repository for licenses and a survey of community to assess the relative priority library system customers place on license expression.

Finally, a few thoughts on licensing expression:

  • Communicating license permissions and prohibitions to staff and users is difficult.
  • License expression is not a simple process; cost-benefit analysis is needed
  • Many issues need to be considered: desire for ambiguity versus clarity; the level of details that an organization needs; ONIX-PL is not an enforcement mechanism; issues impacting negotiation.

After a lively discussion, Mr. Carpenter concluded his presentation with an appropriate quote by Charles Mingus:  “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”


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