Matt Koll wrote me an email this morning with a correction about my Wondir post, now removed from my blog. I wrote:

…the really big issue I always had with Wondir is this, in their Terms of Service:

The data, text, pictures, sound, graphics, logos, marks, symbols, video, software (whether in source code or object code form), tools, Content and any other materials or information incorporated into, used in conjunction with, or otherwise made available on or through our website or any of the services we offer (collectively, the “Materials”) and all worldwide copyrights, trademarks, service marks, patents, patent registration rights, trade secrets, know-how, database rights and all other rights in or relating to such Materials (collectively, the “Intellectual Property”) are owned by Wondir, its affiliates or third parties who have given us permission to use it.

Wondir authorizes you to use the Materials for your personal, non-commercial use only, provided that you keep intact all copyright and other proprietary notices. You may not otherwise reproduce, perform, distribute, display or create derivative works of the Materials.

To be fair, however, Google Answers’ Terms of Service say essentially the same thing:

Google shall have the perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive right to use, reproduce, modify, edit, translate, publish, perform, display, post, transmit and distribute (“Use”) your questions, comments, and/or the corresponding answers without compensation to you, anonymously or in the aggregate, for internal or external purposes, alone or as part of other works in any form, media, or technology, whether now known or hereafter developed and to sublicense such rights.

So, you ask a question or provide an answer on Wondir’s/Google Answers’ site, & Wondir/Google Answers then owns it.

Matt points out that I was incorrect in writing this, and replies:

Wondir’s policy is this:

The person who produces the content owns the content. Users own what they write and are free to use their own material as they wish. Wondir also claims certain rights to use the materials, as described in the legal notices on the Wondir site.

When someone answers a question on Wondir they are agreeing to give Wondir rights to use and re-use that material. But Wondir absolutely does not place restrictions on what an individual may do with the information that they produce.

I stand corrected; that was not clear to me. Not having any background in intellectual property law, it appeared to me that intellectual property rights were owned by Wondir.

Several issues remain, however. I raise them here because I think it’s important that library reference services consider them. In an era where non-library entities are offering services similar to those offered by libraries, whether or not there is direct competition, librarians need to think about what it is that we offer that’s unique.

One issue is the tension between intellectual property and reference work (or more broadly, question-answering services of all types). Most library digital reference services make no claims to owning the intellectual property on questions & answers, and many outright ignore the issue. I challenge you to find a library dig ref service that has any policy at all on their site about who owns the intellectual property generated by the question-answering process. (I’m not saying they don’t have a policy, I’m just saying they don’t make it public. Though I suspect most actually don’t have a policy.) Of course it’s usually a non-issue because few dig ref services make answered questions publicly accessible. Still, I’ve believed for a long time that this is a legal battle waiting to happen.

Another issue is the cognitive load imposed on the user in simply making use of the question-answering service. We trust that librarians are going to give us good information because they have MLSes, because they’re trained in reference work, etc. We trust in the system to produce people who will provide us with good information service. So that reduces the user’s cognitive load: trust the system. But in a commercial question-answering service, the answerer may or may not have an MLS, training, or whatever. The system is not in place (yet?) that the user can simply trust. Google Answers’ solution to this was to create a vetting system (which is currently closed). Of course this system has its detractors as well. But if organizations other than library schools are vetting and “certifying” people to answer questions, then library schools really need to think about what it is that we offer that’s unique.

In this vein, I posed the question, who would you want to have answering your questions? Matt replied:

It depends on the question. There are all sorts of different kinds of expertise, knowledge and experience that bear on a person’s ability to help another person who has a question. If I’m looking for a recommendation on a baby sitter, restaurant, or movie — should I ask a reference librarian? If I want to talk to other people who have the same disease as me to compare notes, what I’m looking for is not a trained expert — but someone who has particular relevant experience.

So, caveat emptor? What is an answerer’s incentive to answer questions? This is likely to be highly personal and context-dependent. What authority does the answerer have to be providing an answer on such-and-such a topic? That’s for the answerer to divulge and the questioner to evaluate. Personally I believe that information literacy skills should be taught in grade school, for precisely this reason. Ultimately I believe the issue is personal: Who do you trust to give you information, on what topics, and why?

Finally, relevant to the issue of commercial QA services, Matt asks me:

Why publish a blog article when any search engine can index it and make money by showing ads around the hit list it shows up on?

This is an excellent question. Why indeed? I honestly don’t have an answer for that one. Blogging is mysterious to me; I’m still not entirely sure why I do it.