Casey Fiesler

ACM Publication & Copyright


Last year, ACM changed its copyright model to offer three different options for authors publishing ACM papers: (1) a non-exclusive license to ACM that requires an “open access” fee; (2) a license granting ACM exclusive publishing rights; and (3) a copyright transfer to ACM. Previously, the third option was the only one available to authors, and this move was generally seen as a response by ACM to criticism over their lack of open access.

Since this change, when there is a new camera-ready manuscript deadline for a big conference, multiple people always ask my advice on handling their copyright. My typical tweet-sized response is: “License. No reason to transfer your copyright.” So I thought I would explain this in more detail, along with some related issues of what you’re allowed to do after you grant this license, and finally a brief note about fair use. This is based on some research and my reading of the copyright licenses, not from speaking with anyone at ACM – and of course, my opinion and IANYL.

The difference between license and transfer
If you (or your research funding) care about open access and you can afford it, then option #1 is great. (I’m not sure if it’s always the same fee, but for CSCW this year, it’s $700 for ACM members or $900 for non-members.) Otherwise, choosing between 2 and 3 (license and transfer) probably will have very little practical difference. Transferring your copyright means that ACM completely owns that work. The other option is to grant ACM an exclusive license to publish your work, which, in practical terms, has pretty much the same outcome – the work is still exclusive to ACM. To me, it’s more a philosophical difference. The advantage touted by ACM to transferring your copyright is that it obligates them to defend against infringement. However, this is probably never going to come up, and even if it does, they have just as much interest in protecting the copyright either way. In my opinion, there is really no reason to entirely give up ownership of your work.

What does the license entail?
All that said, the license option is no great boon to open access since it’s no more open than it was before. (Though something that is useful for openness is Author-izer, explained in detail in the next section.) Here is the text of that license:

Owner hereby grants to ACM an exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, transferable and sublicenseable license to publish, reproduce and distribute all or any part of the Work in any and all forms of media, now or hereafter known, including in the above publication and in the ACM Digital Library, and to authorize third parties to do the same.

Part of my research involves copyright licensing agreements, so I can tell you with some certainty that for most people this requires some translation. Here’s mine:

ACM has exclusive rights to this work, meaning that no one (including you) can publish it anywhere else, or give anyone else the right to publish/distribute/copy. There are no geographic constraints on ACM’s use. They do not have to pay you anything. This license does not expire. You cannot revoke this license if you change your mind. They have the right to publish this work in the ACM Digital Library or any other medium (including those that haven’t been invented yet). ACM can also license this work to others without further permission.

There is also a clause about “minor revisions,” noting that any derivative work that contains less than 25% new substantive material falls under this same license. (This of course brings up the related topic of self plagiarism, which is complicated because like many things, law, ethics, and policy don’t always align. Here’s an interesting CACM column by law prof Pamela Samuelson about it.)

How can I use my own work?
If you choose to pay the open access fee, then you are granting ACM a non-exclusive license to publish, which means that you can publish the work elsewhere however you choose. If you choose one of the other two options, then ACM provides some specific exceptions to the exclusive rights. As the author of the work, you can:

  1. Re-use any portion of the piece in future works you write or edit, such as books or presentations (and, I assume, dissertations, which is pretty important).
  2. Create a “major revision” (defined as more than 25% new material) that you own.
  3. Publish the “accepted version” of the piece on (a) your personal web page, (b) your institutional repository, or (c) any repository legally mandated by your funding agency.
  4. Use an author-izer link on your personal webpage or institutional repository.
  5. Post the non-peer-reviewed (i.e., originally submitted) version to non-peer-review servers (which I think means something like ArXiv or SSRN) prior to submission.
  6. Distribute the final version to your employees, or for classroom or personal use.
  7. Bundle the work with software distribution.

There are some obvious FAQs related to this list, and I’ve done a little bit of research on how people have interpreted it, but some of this is based on my assumptions.

And finally, a note about third-party material…
Once you choose a copyright license, ACM also asks you some additional questions regarding copyright. One is about your use of third party material. You are given two options to choose from: (1) We/I have not used third-party material; and (2) We/I have used third-party materials and have necessary permissions. Note that there is not a third “We/I have used third-party material and it is fair use” option. ACM does have a page with guidance for authors on fair use, but there isn’t actually any way to indicate this in your copyright form. If you say that you used third-party material it asks you for evidence of the permissions. For a paper in the past, I emailed the ACM rights review folks with a separate document containing my fair use rationale. I assume this is not something that most people do. But remember: fair use is your friend! Don’t forget that it exists, just because it’s not an option.

I hope this was helpful! Please feel free to comment with questions, and though I can’t promise I’ll have the answers I can at least give you my thoughts. My advice would also always be that if there is something especially important/concerning, to contact ACM with specific questions about legal issues.

UPDATE: I also wrote a post specifically about fair use and third party material.