In which Mel is saddened and bewildered by academic copyright assignments

August 20, 2011 – 12:56 am

Karl Fogel reminded me to check the copyright assignment for the scholarly papers I’m starting to submit on Teaching Open Source (TOS), cialis 40mg particularly POSSE. I sat down this afternoon and did some digging, urticaria and here’s what I found — keep in mind these are the notes of an unschooled grad student new to the topic, information pills uneducated on copyright, new to academic publishing, and probably contain errors. I’m posting these assertions in the hope that people will correct me if I make mistakes; if mistakes are pointed out 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.

Excerpts below.

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. (emphasis mine)

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 many academics do this… 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

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 write 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 only post works to a public location 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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  1. 15 Responses to “In which Mel is saddened and bewildered by academic copyright assignments”

  2. What happens if you publish your study CC-BY-SA, then afterwards submit it? Are you unable to submit it legally?

    Also, consider that at least if you’ve got a data set backing your paper, you could release that CC-BY-SA if not the actual paper.

    These copyright games in general are bullshit though.

    By Máirín Duffy on Aug 20, 2011

  3. What happens if you publish your study CC-BY-SA, then afterwards submit it? Are you unable to submit it legally?

    I was thinking about that too, and maybe it’ll work in some cases, but (aside from a nagging sense of “they must have thought of that!”) there’s one potential big gotcha: blind review. It’s not used everywhere, but it is on many major grants.

    Blind review, means your submission needs to be anonymized when you turn it in, and that a reviewer shouldn’t be able to figure out who you were by searching the web. If you’ve posted the whole thing openly, then… whoops.

    But it might work — once you release something under an open license,
    you can’t unrelease it, even if you subsequently change the license
    terms; the CC-BY-SA (or whatever) copy is still out there and able to be

    Also, consider that at least if you’ve got a data set backing your paper, you could release that CC-BY-SA if not the actual paper.

    Excellent point. Will have to habitually do this.

    By Mel on Aug 20, 2011

  4. This is bullshit. Don’t even take part, and *certainly* don’t send any papers to IEEE or ACM. Have you asked TOS if you can publish through another outlet which respects you? Is there a TOS forum where you can raise these issues with others?

    By Rich on Aug 20, 2011

  5. Now I am imagining this fiendish plan to

    1) encrypt a paper

    2) release the encrypted text under CC-BY-SA

    3) submit the cleartext to one of these maximalist venues; web searches will turn up nothing that would de-anonymize me for the purposes of blind review

    4) get accepted, lose copyright on the cleartext

    5) release the key so people can decrypt the CC-BY-SA version

    I am not sure whether this would be a practical joke, or just practical.

    By Sumana Harihareswara on Aug 20, 2011

  6. Accepted practice in (as far as I can tell) all of computer science seems to be to sign whatever the publisher wants you to sign and then act as if you hadn’t: put the full as-published text on your (university-run) website marked as copyright yourself, for instance. I suspect the widespreadness of this, and publishers generally not prosecuting people for it, mean that the copyright assignment has … rather less legal force than it reads as having, if it actually went to trial, but I am not a lawyer and do not particularly like relying on this myself.

    The good news is, some of the top venues in my subdiscipline (USENIX Security, for instance) offer much more reasonable terms, and others (IEEE S&P) are considering it as of this year’s business meeting. It seems to be a generational shift in progress: everyone older than 40 is really worried about publication records and tenure committees, but the current crop of grad students thinks everything should be online and Creative Commons licensing is often a good idea.

    By Zack on Aug 20, 2011

  7. … oh, also, there’s what I think is a rising sentiment that research funded by the gummint should have its results be available to the public, and I think I’ve heard people writing grant proposals for NSF, at least, making noises about how it improves your odds if you can say that.

    By Zack on Aug 20, 2011

  8. They want the copyright on the paper, afaik there’s nothing holding you back from having your dissertation under a different licence. After all, the dissertation hasn’t been submitted to the publishers.

    By Henna on Aug 21, 2011

  9. Oh, I didn’t realize you were at Purdue. Welcome to beautiful West Lafayette. And thanks for pointing this out. I’ll need to pay attention to this if I get anything published.

    By Ben C on Aug 22, 2011

  10. Short version: It’s standard practice to violate stated copyright rules if they hinder research, and I’ve never seen anyone called on it. Be careful using copyright as a way to choose venues because it can and likely will hurt you academically in the long term. It is a known “bug” in the academic system, but in the relatively few years I’ve published academic papers, I’ve actually seen progress on this front, so there’s hope!

    Long version:

    I was pretty perturbed the first time I saw one of those copyright assignments, and talked to my supervisor at the time about it. He claimed that in practical terms, the copyright assignment is intended to mean that you cannot ever submit an *identical* paper to another venue, but it’s an important part of science that you’re allowed to submit derivative works so that you can fix errors and submit a related paper to a new venue.

    At the time, it was unusual to have provisions that said you could even have your papers on your own website, and he pointed out that our copyright laws [in Canada] allow copying of individual articles for research, which more or less includes handing out copies to a class, so he that felt copies on your website would fall into that guideline too.

    I doubt the precise legality of this, but it does demonstrate that it’s long been practice to ignore the copyright restrictions that hinder research.

    I’ve noticed that smaller, more modern venues often have more permissive copyright. Be careful using copyright as a way to choose conferences, though, aside from select very domain-specific venues, it’s the older ones that are considered higher-prestige, so you will tend to hurt your reputation *noticeably* if you publish only in copyright-friendly venues.

    Incidentally, there’s since been a great study showing that academics who make their papers available online are more cited (and thus considered more influential) than their peers. So it’s also a well-known secret that heavier copyright restrictions are a hindrance to research, and a subject of some significant debate.

    I’ve been submitting to conferences for under a decade, though, and I’ve already seen “permission to put a copy on your website” become a fairly common clause, and “copyright is returned to you if we choose not to publish the paper” turns up a lot more often than it used to, so I have hopes that we’re making progress.

    By Terri on Aug 22, 2011

  11. Thanks, Terri — hearing this from someone else who’s been around the same situation before is a big relief. The stance I’ve been evolving treats these sorts of copyright issues as a bug — a serious one — but not a blocker.

    Responding to Rich as well here — I’m going to keep submitting to IEEE, ACM, ASEE… and also continuing, in parallel, to see if I can chip away at the situation and make it a bit better every time. This round, I’ll settle for being aware of the implications of what I’m signing up for, and sending at least a first letter asking whether my coauthors and I can open-license anyway. I believe that in order to change the way the world works, you need to learn to meet it where it’s at, so you can bring it where you’d rather see it go.

    Incidentally, there’s since been a great study showing that academics who make their papers available online are more cited (and thus considered more influential) than their peers. So it’s also a well-known secret that heavier copyright restrictions are a hindrance
    to research, and a subject of some significant debate.

    Ooh… do you happen to remember offhand what that study is? It’ll likely be useful citation ammo at some point; I vaguely remember hearing about this before, but am not sure if there’s a paper (or papers) considered canonical above others. There is a giant mine at, though.

    I also ran across — mines google scholar for statistics on the impact of research — which seems like another potential (though non-FOSS, right now) source of ammo.

    so I have hopes that we’re making progress.

    Same here — I’ve also noticed the things Zack has echoed, with publicly funded research requiring publicly available results. It’s always gladdening to hear you’re not alone. Thanks for the insights!

    Also, Sumana — I’m going to try out your suggestion with the first draft of my SIGCSE paper. Stay tuned. ;-)

    By Mel on Aug 22, 2011

  12. FWIW, Mairin: You can’t copyright a data set here in the US. You can release it, though, just by sharing it.

    Back on topic: Yup, this sucks. In general, the movement to make the copyright landscape in academic publishing more sane is called “open access”. I urge everyone here to learn more about it.

    Creative Commons (who I used to work for) maintains information about the intersection of data, copyright, and academia here:

    By Asheesh Laroia on Aug 22, 2011

    (so its ok to encrypt it, as I just read, this was news to me)
    What happens if someone tries to restrict a CC-licensed work with digital rights management (DRM) tools?
    If a person uses DRM tools to restrict any of the rights granted in the license, that person violates the license. All of our licenses prohibit licensees from “impos(ing) any effective technological measures on the Work that restrict the ability of a recipient of the Work from You to exercise the rights granted to that recipient under the terms of the License.”

    Encryption or an access limitation is not necessarily a technical protection measure prohibited by the licenses. For example, content sent via email and encrypted with the recipient’s public key does not restrict use of the Work by the recipient. Likewise, limiting recipients to a set of users (e.g., with a username and password) does not restrict use of the Work by the recipients.

    In the cases above, encryption or an access limitation is not incompatible with the prohibition on DRM because the recipient is not prevented from exercising all rights granted by the license (including rights of further redistribution). If, however, encryption is implemented in such as way as to prevent the recipient from exercising any right granted by the license, then that would constitute a violation of this provision.

    By Kevin Mark on Aug 23, 2011

  14. Unfortunately this is the way that academia works. If you plan on staying in academia and being a faculty somewhere, you will just have to accept this. At most universities, you have to publish if you want to make tenure/get promoted. To publish you have to give away your copyright. Also note, while the loop hole around copyright assignment exists, using it can have consequences. Universities pay a lot of money to be able to submit work to these publications. Their libraries also pay a fortune for you as a student to be able to search the journal databases. A university that breaks the rules routinely could be sanctioned, at least theoretically.

    By Gary Scarborough on Aug 25, 2011

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