July 16, 2024

Tinkering with the IEEE and ACM copyright policies

It’s historically been the case that papers published in an IEEE or ACM conference or journal must have their copyrights assigned to the IEEE or ACM, respectively. Most of us were happy with this sort of arrangement, but the new IEEE policy seems to apply more restrictions on this process. Matt Blaze blogged about this issue in particular detail.

The IEEE policy and the comparable ACM policy appear to be focused on creating revenue opportunities for these professional societies. Hypothetically, that income should result in cost savings elsewhere (e.g., lower conference registration fees) or in higher quality member services (e.g., paying the expenses of conference program committee members to attend meetings). In practice, neither of these are true. Regardless, our professional societies work hard to keep a paywall between our papers and their readership. Is this sort of behavior in our best interests? Not really.

What benefits the author of an academic paper? In a word, impact. Papers that are more widely read are more widely influential. Furthermore, widely read papers are more widely cited; citation counts are explicitly considered in hiring, promotion, and tenure cases. Anything that gets in the way of a paper’s impact is something that damages our careers and it’s something we need to fix.

There are three common solutions. First, we ignore the rules and post copies of our work on our personal, laboratory, and/or departmental web pages. Virtually any paper written in the past ten years can be found online, without cost, and conveniently cataloged by sites like Google Scholar. Second, some authors I’ve spoken to will significantly edit the copyright assignment forms before submitting them. Nobody apparently ever notices this. Third, some professional societies, notably the USENIX Association, have changed their rules. The USENIX policy completely inverts the relationship between author and publisher. Authors grant USENIX certain limited and reasonable rights, while the authors retain copyright over their work. USENIX then posts all the papers on its web site, free of charge; authors are free to do the same on their own web sites.

(USENIX ensures that every conference proceedings has a proper ISBN number. Every USENIX paper is just as “published” as a paper in any other conference, even though printed proceedings are long gone.)

Somehow, the sky hasn’t fallen. So far as I know, the USENIX Association’s finances still work just fine. Perhaps it’s marginally more expensive to attend a USENIX conference, but then the service level is also much higher. The USENIX professional staff do things that are normally handled by volunteer labor at other conferences.

This brings me to the vote we had last week at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (the “Oakland” conference) during the business meeting. We had an unusually high attendance (perhaps 150 out of 400 attendees) as there were a variety of important topics under discussion. We spent maybe 15 minutes talking about the IEEE’s copyright policy and the resolution before the room was should we reject the IEEE copyright policy and adopt the USENIX policy? Ultimately, there were two “no” votes and everybody else voted “yes.” That’s an overwhelming statement.

The question is what happens next. I’m planning to attend ACM CCS this October in Chicago and I expect we can have a similar vote there. I hope similar votes can happen at other IEEE and ACM conferences. Get it on the agenda of your business meetings. Vote early and vote often! I certainly hope the IEEE and ACM agree to follow the will of their membership. If the leadership don’t follow the membership, then we’ve got some more interesting problems that we’ll need to solve.

Sidebar: ACM and IEEE make money by reselling our work, particularly with institutional subscriptions to university libraries and large companies. As an ACM or IEEE member, you also get access to some, but not all, of the online library contents. If you make everything free (as in free beer), removing that revenue source, then you’ve got a budget hole to fill. While I’m no budget wizard, it would make sense for our conference registration fees to support the archival online storage of our papers. Add in some online advertising (example: startup companies, hungry to hire engineers with specialized talents, would pay serious fees for advertisements adjacent to research papers in the relevant areas), and I’ll bet everything would work out just fine.


  1. There are other tactics. You could tell the IEEE and ACM that you did the work for the US govt, and therefore it is not copyrighted. Or you could say that you have already granted rights to a preprint server.

  2. David Karger says

    You suggest unilaterally modifyting the copyright agreement, but that doesn’t always work. Last year when I published a paper at ACM UIST, I submitted this addendum that was developed as part of MIT’s open access policy. ACM refused to publish the submission unless I withdrew the amendment. Unfortunately, I believe that having impact requires publishing in the conferences people read, so I had to go along with the publisher’s demands.

    • dwallach says

      Wild. How are other MIT authors faring with this thing?

    • Anonymous says

      That’s an interesting experience. I published something in ACM CSCW 2012 where I never assigned copyright to ACM. I just looked at the paper, and they claim a copyright they do not have. I wonder if you could have gotten away with a similar approach?

  3. Anonymous says

    IEEE is us, we should just get more organized and change this policy, as well as the other policies about respect for “IP”.

    So here’s the tangent: Respect for “IP” is too broad, software patents are destroying the ability for small companies to operate in the software business in the USA, and even worse it is infringing on our liberties as practictioners to use the right solution. If I’m an accredited software engineer I’m supposed to be using the best solution I can, if that solution is patent encumbered, we have problems.

    Even worse is the opensource world where practioners work together to make software, only to find that large companies are threatening them for releasing software for free and sharing.

    * We can change the IEEE
    * If we want IEEE to be more open, we should tell it to be more open
    * IEEE and ACM need to stop supporting software patents, these software patents harm innovation and threaten research.

  4. Anonymous says

    You mention reducing conference registration fees. It sounds like you haven’t run an IEEE conference. The IEEE takes a 20% cut of the conference. Not of revenue, but of the budget. This means that if you actual budget is 80k, your revenues (i.e. registration, corporate sponsorship) must be 100k: 80k to pay for the conference + 20k for the IEEE cut.

    So they are already making money from the conference even before they sell an single copy of an article.

    • dwallach says

      Well, it’s nice to know that IEEE conferences are getting so much in return. (Sigh.)