Saddened and bewildered by academic copyright assignments

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Karl Fogel reminded me to check the copyright assignment for the scholarly papers I'm starting to submit on Teaching Open Source (TOS), particularly POSSE. I sat down and did some digging, and here's what I found--keep in mind these are the notes of an unschooled grad student new to the topic, uneducated on copyright and new to academic publishing--let me know if your experiences have involved other interpretations of these policies. In fact, I'm posting these assertions in the hope that people will correct me if I've made mistakes (and I will edit this post and provide attribution for the edits).

TOS currently publishes and presents mostly within three academic venues: IEEE and ASEE, who co-host the Frontiers in Education (FIE) conference each year, and ACM, within which SIGCSE and the CS education conference by the same name are hosted.

Here's what I've found about their policies. I don't understand them very well, but what I think I do understand is depressing.

IEEE: Copyright assignment policy for FIE 2011 (pdf) Summary: You must assign the copyright to IEEE upon submission. They own everything.

Excerpt (emphasis mine):

The requirements in this Section shall apply to all manuscripts submitted to IEEE journals, transactions, letters, magazines, and conference publications... An author includes a completed IEEE Copyright Form during submission of the manuscript to an IEEE publication and thereby transfers the copyright of the manuscript to IEEE.

Submitted. Not accepted, submitted. If you want IEEE to consider your documents for publication, you have to hand them copyright assignments before they'll even look at it. Even if they turn your paper down, they still own its copyright.

IEEE'S policy for permitting posting of IEEE-copyrighted articles...extends only to authors and their employers and IEEE organizational units. IEEE policy does not permit third parties to post IEEE-copyrighted material without obtaining a license or permission from the IEEE.

I can post a pdf of my article on my website, and I've been told by many academics do so, which is a step in the right direction, but insufficient. Nobody else can post or share it, so you're limited to one distribution node (yourself) with very limited rights.

Authors shall not post the final, published versions of their papers.

Wait, but then what can I post? Apparently the "accepted version of IEEE-copyrighted articles," but I can't see what the difference should be between the accepted version and the published one. Layout?

Before submitting an article to an IEEE publication, authors frequently post their manuscripts to their own web site... [to invite] constructive comment from colleagues. Upon submission of an article to IEEE, an author is required to transfer copyright in the article to IEEE, and the author must update any previously posted version of the article with a prominently displayed IEEE copyright notice. ...Upon publication of an article by the IEEE, the author must replace any previously posted electronic versions of the article...including the IEEE copyright notice and full citation, with a link to the final, published article in IEEE Xplore.


All copies and versions of your paper that exist prior to submission and publication need to be ASSIMILATED BY THE BORG.

SIGCSE: Copyright policy statement Summary: You must assign the copyright to ACM upon acceptance in order to be published. They own everything.

ACM requires authors to assign their copyrights to ACM as a condition of publishing the work.

This is a little better. It's upon acceptance, not submission, meaning that if they turn you down, you still hold copyright to your own work. Still.

While some other publishers have adopted licensing arrangements, ACM relies on copyright transfer. ACM finds copyright transfer more straightforward and easier to administer. In licensing arrangements, all the specific acts for which permission is sought must be forseen and stipulated. A transfer with an explicit set of author-retained rights is less likely to lead to false assumptions about what the "owner" may do with the work after signing an exclusive permissions license.

I found this section fascinating; it starts with same rationalization that Creative Commons does--namely, "the internet changes everything by making information distribution dramatically easier; we can't foresee what will happen in a rapidly changing future, and it's encumbering to have to keep going back to ask permission from original authors every time we want to do something to their work." Creative Commons continues by saying, "and so the authors lay out clearly what they will and won't permit, and we're all set," while this copyright assignment finishes with, "so we'll take the copyright for ourselves, so everyone will just have to ask us."

The entire section "2.5 Rights Retained by Authors and Original Copyright Holders" was an interesting read. At its most basic, it gives you the right to post what you've written on your own site (though, like the IEEE policy, others may not redistribute it). With the IANAL caveat applying to the rest of this post, this section also appears to state that you can post works to a public location  only before copyright transfer. Does this mean that if you don't remember to put it out there before handing ACM the copyright, you can't post it publicly at all?


I turn up with empty hands here, unable to find a blanket copyright policy. The only thing I found was a description of the ASEE Prism copyright policy-- not the policy or assignment statements themselves, nor an indication of what applies to other ASEE publications. Anyone have better luck?


On a happier note, I've spent some time these past few days talking with librarians and checking policies on copyright; that's still a learning journey in progress, but I will retain the copyright for my dissertation and therefore plan on releasing it CC-BY-SA. Similar policies seem to be in state for other universities; I haven't yet found a counterexample that would not allow you to retain copyright (and thus open-license) your thesis, but I have not looked very hard.

Still, on the whole, this state of affairs saddens and confuses me. Fortunately, I've started talking with two of Purdue's engineering librarians, one of whom is also a grad student in my department, and there are ways to navigate this (for instance, sign the form and attach amendments taking back a bunch of rights); I just have to learn them. I'll write them up here as I do.

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Mel Chua is a contagiously enthusiastic hacker, writer, and educator with over a decade of teaching and curriculum development experience and a solid track record in leadership positions at Red Hat, One Laptop Per Child, Sugar Labs, Fedora, and other Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS) communities.



Your observations are right on the point.

Academic publishing is dysfunctional
and needs to be replaced.

On the bright side,
there are many ongoing efforts for
raising awareness and triggering change.

You will find interesting Peter Suber's page:

as well as Peter Murray's blog:

The Welcome Trust position in Open Access

The Howard Huge Medical Institute position:

The NIH Public Access Policy

Larry Lessig's talk at CERN on why the misuse
of Copyright by academic publishers

The funny video by Alex Holcombe:
"Scientist meets Publisher: The Video"

The directory of Open Access Journals

On the very bright news:

Princeton University has decided that Faculty
of Papers to Journals.

The detailed report from the University can be found here:
More comments on it here:
and here:

Harvard Faculty made a similar decision recently to

"...grant to the university a non-exclusive, irrevocable,
worldwide license to distribute their scholarly articles,
provided it is for non commercial uses...."

In Short, the solution is to make a stand and:

"Stop collaborating with to the Closed Access Journals".

For example, we just withdrew from the ACM Multimedia conference, a paper that was accepted for the Open Source Software Competition, given that the terms of the ACM Copyright Transfer agreement were simply Unacceptable. Instead, we are going to publish the paper in our web site under the Creative Common by Attribution License 3.0.

There are many Open Access Journals out there,
and we can help create even more. There is no
reason to continue supporting a dysfunctional
closed access publishing system, when open
alternatives are available. The dysfunctional Journals
and technical societies (like ACM and IEEE) may have
a reputation, but such reputation is only provided by the
authors who give away their papers for free, and the
reviewers who contribute their time for free as well.
These same authors and reviewers, once awaken,
can donate their work to more worthy organizations
that are truly committed to the free dissemination of

It is time to join forces to promote Open Access publishing.

A good beginning is to actively participate in:

Open Access Week:
October 24-20, 2011

Ah! My comment crossed Luis' in the ether! Such a nice set of resources here.

Welcome to the frustrating world of academic publishing!

I understand colleagues have had some success with the method(s) you outline at the conclusion of your piece: Obtain copyright transfer paperwork from publishing institution, amend said documentation, and return under your own terms. Some folks just cross out sections of contracts to which they won't agree (this might be preferable to attaching addenda because these can be easily removed and "lost").

Have you considered publishing your work in an open access journal? Perhaps a publication on <a href="">this list</a> from the Public Knowledge Project might make a good venue for your work. Alternatively, you could search <a href="">this database</a> for a candidate.

Hal Abelson who recently gave a talk at RIT had some interesting data on journal publishing. Apparently only 4 major publishers remain and since they have eaten up all the competition, prices that universities pay for access has gone up 300%. While I applaud the likes of MIT, Harvard and now Princeton, the problem remains. For most universities, publishing is the measure by which faculty get tenure. Add to this the growing number of universities that are trying to monetize research, and its an uphill battle.

One thing that we can do is pressure the government to specify a CC license for all papers written on research that they fund. It only makes sense that research funded with public money be open to the public. It would also be nice for a university to create an open access database of research already in the public domain instead of relying on the jackals to provide it.

Academic publishing is a closed market, and getting close to becoming a monopoly. The sad thing is that, in this instance, academia has done this by choice (at least to a certain extent.) Academic institutions often limit those publications acceptable for tenure or promotion to specific publishers or societies. While its understandable that they want to ensure quality the method and selections generally accepted/mandated are outmoded.

Universities need to vote with their feet and work together to create "appropriate" open journals that will buck the rapacious practices of the venal academic presses and the academic/professional associations that have become more concerned with raising money off of their membership than serving them

Great ideas, all of you.

However, (IMHO), that has about a much chance of happening as the RIAA embracing "Open Publishing".

One thing though - it was my understanding that <strong>*any*</strong> research of a non-classified nature funded by the Federal Government was automatically - <strong>by federal law</strong> - in the public domain. I have seen this mentioned repeatedly in reference to inclusions and citations within Wikipedia articles.

So, AFAIK, the journals can "subsume copyright" all they want if it makes 'em feel happy. However it wouold seem to be unenforcable.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)


Under US Copyright Laws, the works of authorship created by Federal employees is in the Public Domain as long as that work was part of their job duties.

"§ 105. Subject matter of copyright: United States Government works37
Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise."

For contractors of the Federal Government, the case is different. Contractors retain copyrights of the works of authorship that they create as part of the work that they have been contracted to do, and they must give a non-exclusive license to the Government to use those works of authorship.
This license, does not transfer to the general public.

So, in summary:

No, the work funded by the Federal Government through contractors (with your taxes) is not in the public domain. This includes the case for research grants. That's why, almost all of the academic papers that are published, resulting from Federally Funded research, are subject to copyright.

That said, your reasoning and expectations are aligned with the economic logic of what copyright was supposed to be. In short, if the work has already been paid for, there is no economic justification for the work of authorship to be "protected" by copyright. Much less, when the work has been paid with public funds.

A great reading material on the economic logic of copyright can be found in
"The Public Domain" by James Boyle

o Chapter I
o "Why Intellectual Property"

Well. . . . If that isn't solid-gold plated horse hooey! Every year I sweat like a dog and then hand a third of my pay to the various governments - only to find out that the stuff I'm helping to pay for, I have to pay for!

I also agree that limiting access to scholorly articles, however derived, is inherently wrong.

Viz.: One of my favorite web-sites is "In The Pipeline", a blog run by Derick Lowe, a PhD chemist working for a large pharmacutical company. (

His articles are both funny, and hugely informative, even to non PhD readers like myself who are not commercial or achademic chemists. His blog entries are inevitably peppered with references to the full articles published by JACS.

Unfortunately, in order to access these articles - as a mere mortal - I would have to not only give an arm and a leg, but copyright to my first-born as well. IMHO, this renders the potential depth of understanding of what he is saying, since I cannot go back and read precisely what he is talking about.

I think this embodies what is meant by the term "copywrong"

And yes, I stand corrected about the federal copyright stuff.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Very relevant to this discussion are the
recent blog posts from Peter Murray:

"What does 'Free' means here":

On the illusion of "free" that publisher create for
academics, so they remain docile consumers of
overpriced products ("the papers"), Products that
were actually repackaged from the materials that
academics gave to publishers really "for free" in
the first place, via the totalitarian copyright transfer
agreements, that Mel is calling attention to in this

"The Scholarly Poor: Patient Groups":

On how the people who have the strongest
interest in the outcome of medical research,
(patients and patient advocacy groups) are
cut out of the flow of information, by overpriced
and overly restrictive Journals, whose business
models are based on restricting public access to

"Government data policy puts scientists (and publishers) to shame":

On the sad irony that government officials have a better
understanding and are more committed to the open sharing
of information than academics and scientists. Of course,
with the exception of those academics and scientist who
have already embraced the Open Access movement,
and those who created it.

"Pay Per View for scholarly pubs: does it make sense?"

On how some Journals are attempting to remove
the University Library from the flow of information,
and of course, collect rents from academics directly.

I'm quite convinced that:

"Anyone who is trying to get rid of Libraries,
is up to no good for society..."

"The Scholarly Poor: Industry"

On how your access to published research changes
when you leave a University and work for Industry.

" Science for the Scholarly Poor is unacceptable: immoral, unethical and encourages bad science"

On the fundamental fact that the current role of
Journals is to "restrict" access to information, and
how they go to great pains to create gates and
tolls to collect rents in the process of restricting

Similar point to the one that Larry Lessig is
making in his talk at CERN:

and, finally,
my personal favorite:

"Let’s get rid of Journal Rankings (and Journals)":

On why the Journal rankings are part of the
delusion of quality that publishers are happy
to depict for academics, to make them think
that current publishing practices still serves
any purpose.


The solution:

Join the celebration of Open Access Week
October 24-30

“Open Access” to information – the free, immediate, online access to the results of scholarly research, and the right to use and re-use those results as you need – has the power to transform the way research and scientific inquiry are conducted. It has direct and widespread implications for academia, medicine, science, industry, and for society as a whole."

"OA Week is an invaluable chance to connect the global momentum toward open sharing with the advancement of policy changes on the local level. Universities, colleges, research institutes, funding agencies, libraries, and think tanks have used Open Access Week as a platform to host faculty votes on campus open-access policies, to issue reports on the societal and economic benefits of Open Access, to commit new funds in support of open-access publication, and more."

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