I discussed community discontent with copyright terms of some scholarly publishers, and I proposed an economic analysis. Now let’s consider two other approaches.
I have published quite a few scholarly papers, and with each one I am invited to sign a copyright form. This is a contract between author and publisher, which which I hand over certain rights and the give me $0 (plus they publish my paper). These contracts (and my signature) is in dead-tree form, on real paper (though in recent years it follows the print/sign/fax or print/sign/scan/e-mail model).
I usually read these contracts, and from time to time I find some clause objectionable. My solution is to cross out the objectionable clause and write in my own words. After all, a contract is freely entered into between two parties, right? Since the publisher never reads these contracts after I fax them in, this has worked beautifully for years.
But now the game is up. A recent letter from the ACM office of Copyright and Permissions states, in part,
Please be advised that ACM does not accept copyright Addenda that exceed the liberal rights retained by authors under ACM’s Copyright Policy and the exclusive grant of copyright to ACM as publisher. [e-mail dated April 2, 2012]
Well, it was fun while it lasted.
In the strange field of computer science, we publish most of our scholarly articles in refereed conferences. In other fields they have unrefereed conferences and refereed journals. We have journals too, but they are less important than the top conferences. In a typical CS conference, 200 or 300 papers are submitted, three months later they have been refereed and 30 or 50 papers are accepted; three weeks later the authors must send in their full-length refereed articles as camera-ready PDF files. Then the conference proceedings must appear (in print and online) within a short time, a few weeks later, when the conference convenes.
This has an interesting consequence. Suppose almost all the authors of the 40 accepted papers were to write the same modification into their copyright contract? The publisher could reject all those papers, but there’s a serious time constraint: the conference volume has to appear, and it has to appear NOW, with a short deadline. If the volume appears but missing three-fourths of its papers, then that conference is effectively dead, and may never recover in future years.
It’s not like a journal, where the publisher can just publish some other papers instead. The papers are accepted all at once by a program committee whose members are not employees of the publisher, who are not under a contractual obligation to the publisher, and who may sympathize more with the authors’ views about copyright than with the publisher’s. The publisher cannot simply substitute other papers.
This is a game of chicken that the publisher cannot win. If the authors feel strongly and get their gumption together, they will prevail. The best course for publishers is to avoid playing this game of chicken, by adjusting their copyright contracts to fit the progress of open-access policies in the 21st century. I believe that the good nonprofits (such as ACM and IEEE) are heading in this direction, and Usenix is already there.
WARNING: I am not a lawyer, but is my understanding that the participating authors will be on stronger legal ground if their pledge to insist on a different contract is not conditioned on all (or most) of the other authors doing the same.
Personally, with regard to the ACM I would suggest the charitable contributions model. But the community organizing model would be amusing to watch!