Monday, October 10, 2011

ACM & Copyrights

ACM's copyright policy has been a subject of controversy. The latest Communications of the ACM has an article by Ronald Boisvert and Jack Davidson, the co-chairs of the ACM Publications Board, outlining recent changes. One change they feature is:
One new feature that ACM will roll out in the fall will enable authors to obtain a special link for any of their ACM articles that they may post on their personal page. Anyone who clicks on this link can freely download the definitive version of the paper from the DL. In addition, authors will receive a code snippet they can put on their Web page that will display up-to-date citation counts and download statistics for their article from the DL.
Below the fold I look this gift horse in the mouth.


It is true that ACM's copyright policy has been better than that of some publishers. They have permitted, under certain conditions, authors to post their papers to the web:

The right to post author-prepared versions of the work covered by ACM copyright in a personal collection on their own home page, on a publicly accessible server of their employer, and in a repository legally mandated by the agency funding the research on which the work is based. Such posting is limited to noncommercial access and personal use by others, and must include the ACM copyright notice both embedded within the full-text file and in the accompanying citation display as well.
With the recent change to the copyright policy, ACM clearly hopes that authors will not bother to post their own work, but will simply link to the ACM's version.

They continue to insist that it is essential that authors transfer copyright in their articles to ACM:
One might wonder, given the generous rights retained by authors, why ACM requires authors to transfer copyright to ACM at all. In fact, the transfer of copyright to ACM provides substantial benefit to the computing research community and to authors.

By owning exclusive publication rights to articles, ACM is able to develop salable publication products that sustain its top-quality publishing programs and services; ensure access to organized collections by current and future generations of readers; and invest continuously in new titles and in services like referrer-linking, profiling, and metrics, which serve the community. Furthermore, it allows ACM to efficiently clear rights for the creation, dissemination, and translation of collections of articles that benefit the computing community that would be impossible if individual authors or their heirs had to be contacted for permission. Ownership of copyright allows ACM to pursue cases of plagiarism. The number of these handled has been steadily growing; some 20 cases were handled by ACM in the last year. Having ACM investigate and take action removes this burden from our authors, and ACM is more likely to obtain a satisfactory outcome (for example, having the offending material removed from a repository) than an individual.
This sounds good, but it only does so because it implicitly assumes a straw-man opponent. Lets look at these claims in turn against the real opponent, a world in which authors retain copyright but use Creative Commons licenses, such as that proposed by Dan Wallach in the same CACM issue:
  • develop salable products: this is a benefit to ACM, but only to the community if the benefits of these products outweigh the costs charged. Copyright transfer assures ACM that these products will not face competition, allowing them to harvest monopoly rents from them. The alternative provides a competitive market for these products, which is likely to prove better for the community.
  • ensure access to organized collections: by which they mean "ensure access by paying customers". Has ACM any evidence that their reader community values the "organization" they provide over and above that provided by other services, such as Google?
  • invest in new titles and services: this "benefit to the community" is a repeat of the first; it assumes that the only way these new products can be financed is by extracting monopoly rents from the community.
  • efficiently clear rights: The alternative renders this overhead completely unnecessary, since with Creative Commons no rights clearance is needed.
  • pursue cases of plagiarism: this is the only "benefit to authors" they cite, and it is a real benefit. However, it is hard to argue that 20 cases per year outweighs the other disadvantages of copyright transfer. Author's institutions are probably as capable of pursuing these cases, which would be violations of the Creative Commons license.
It is clear that ACM's priority is owning exclusive publication rights to articles. ACM cannot claim that owning exclusive publication rights is necessary for them to publish articles, merely that they prefer to have them. For example, the editors of ACM Queue asked me to write an article based on my blog posts on A Petabyte For A Century. They published the result, "Keeping Bits Safe: How Hard Can It Be?". I retained copyright to the article, granted ACM permission to publish it, and published the article on the LOCKSS web site under a Creative Commons license. CACM liked the article so much that they also published it. I was happy for them to do so, and they had a license from the copyright owner (me) to do so. However, I was surprised to see at the bottom of the CACM version:
©2010 ACM 0001-0782/10/1100 $10.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2010 ACM, Inc.
I had never transferred copyright to ACM for this work, the CACM editors had simply assumed that I must have done so. I objected in e-mail and the editors properly admitted the mistake and promised to fix it on 3/10/11:
The error you pointed out in the CACM copyright notice is indeed our mistake. We apologize for the oversight. There was a communication error here when your article was transferred over from Queue to CACM. We can make the necessary corrections on the CACM website, in the Digital Library, and on the PDF, by close of business tomorrow. Since this is a serious ACM error, we will take down your article entirely if you prefer.
As I prepared this post, I revisited my CACM article and saw that ACM is still falsely claiming that they have the copyright on it (see the screen grab from 29 Sept. 2011). Perhaps ACM's publishing system is too inflexible to cope with the varying copyright ownership found in the real world.

In March 2010 I presented a paper entitled "LOCKSS: Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe" at a NIST Digital Preservation Interoperability Framework Workshop. Subsequent to the workshop, the organizers arranged for the papers to be published by the ACM. About a year later in March 2011, ACM sent me a request to transfer copyright in this paper. I replied that I was happy for them to publish the paper, that in fact they did not need my permission since the paper was up on the Web under a Creative Commons license, but that I would not transfer copyright. It would have been hypocritical to do so; the workshop was about interoperability among digital repositories and the paper identified copyright as one of the major barriers to this.

The request for copyright transfer was repeated in June 2011, ignoring my earlier response. I replied that ACM was free to publish the paper but I would not transfer copyright. If they insisted on copyright transfer, they would have to omit the paper. It is now 18 months after the workshop and the papers have yet to appear on the ACM web site. I don't know if ACM will omit my paper despite having explicit permission to publish it, or again publish the paper claiming a copyright they don't possess. But it is worth noting that the only reason they would have not to publish a paper that has been accepted and which they have the right to publish is because the rights they have are not exclusive. Wether they omit the paper or claim copyright it will be clear what their priority is: owning exclusive rights to publish.

But in any case the claim that the ACM editorial and publication process adds so much value that it outweighs the disadvantages of their insistence on owning the copyright rings hollow in the light of my two experiences. In the Queue case, CACM simply re-published, somewhat later, an article that the ACM Queue editors developed (by hassling me to produce) and published. The only value CACM added was some fancy but meaningless art-work and their copyright claim. ACM added equally little to my DPIF paper; here are the reviewers' comments:
  • None.
  • The paper is fine. It describes the development of the LOCKSS system, and proposes some major remaining problems.
  • Only a few (very) typos or sentences that were a bit hard to follow. The paper read very well and described both challenges and innovative approaches being applied. This reviewer believes many of the US DPIF Workshop presenter guidelines were addressed in this paper.
The reason why the papers have yet to appear after 18 months isn't clear, but having the authors post their papers immediately under Creative Commons licenses would have been a much better publication process.

1 comment:

Lisa Green said...

Great analysis.

Even a Creative Commons non-commercial license (with ACM retaining the right to "develop salable publication products") would be better than what they have.

The "ensure access to organized collections" argument is ridiculous. How does having everything in one place, instead of multiple copies available and open to aggregation by other parties, possibly lead to ensuring access?