April 25, 2014

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Copyright in Scholarly Publishing, 2012 Edition

I’ve heard a lot recently about copyright policies of scholarly journals. Over 9000 researchers signed a pledge to boycott Elsevier, on three grounds: (1) high prices for journal subscriptions, (2) bundling practices for institutional subscriptions; (3) lobbying regarding SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act.

Meanwhile, other organizations such as the ACM (scholarly/professional society for computer science and the computing industry) and IEEE (scholarly/professional society for electrical engineering and computing) once were leaders in open-access; they had relatively low journal prices and relatively liberal policies permitting authors to display preprints on the authors’ web pages. Now the ACM’s and IEEE’s policies have not changed, but they are no longer at the forefront: while ACM and IEEE require an assignment of copyright and leave the author with a few rights, organizations such as Usenix (another professional society in computing) take only a nonexclusive license to reprint a scholarly article.

Some computer scientists feel strongly that ACM should adjust its copyright policy. At recent business meeting of SIGOPS, the ACM special interest group on Operating Systems, a motion passed with approximately 99% in favor stating that “it is the desire of the SIGOPS community for authors to retain copyright of publications, and instead grant ACM a non-exclusive license for inclusion in the ACM Digital Library and other ACM venues.”

SIGOPS and the many other ACM Special Interest Groups are a significant source of the ACM’s “content” (as intellectual and creative works are so rebarbatively called in the 21st century). SIGOPS and its sisters not only provide the “content” but also of the editors and referees for that “content.” So this is something the ACM (and other scholarly publishers) must take seriously, and indeed a member of the ACM Publications Board tells me that their June 2012 meeting will spend most of its time on these issues.

In my next two articles I’ll suggest some ways in which academic scholar/authors might personally approach the copyright wars. I will treat this with all the seriousness it deserves, in light of Sayre’s law: “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low”.

I will discuss,

  1. The consulting-contract model
  2. The charitable donations model
  3. The contract-hacking model
  4. The union organizing model