Friday, March 11, 2011

The Road to Serfdom, ACM Edition


A couple of days back, I got the following email from ACM:

Dear Moderator/Chairs,

This is being sent to everyone with the chairs cc'd as the last and final requeset for the eform below to be completed or your panel overview abstract will be removed from the WWW 2011 Companion Publication and will NOT appear in the ACM DL.

Your prompt and immediate attention to the form below is needed.

permission release form URL: ....

ACM Copyrights & Permissions

Given that this was the "last and final requeset"[sic], I assumed that somehow I missed the previous requests. So, I checked my email to find out how late I was. Nope. Nothing in the archive, nothing in the trash, nothing in the spam, no entry in the delivery log. This was the first notification sent by ACM. They have just forgotten about this. But since they were running late, why not just threaten the authors? It is so much easier to pass the blame to others and be the first one to be aggressive.

What happened ACM, did you start get advice on customer service from your pals at Sheridan Printing, who tend to send requests like this?

But I should not have been so surprised. This email just reflects the overall attitude of ACM. I have experienced this many times in the past. Anyway, I decided to sign the e-form, without firing back.

Donating copyright to ACM

Signing the form was a mechanic action before. However, after reading Matt Blaze's post on copyright and academic publishing, I decided to read the form a little bit more carefully, to see exactly what I was signing.

As usual, we start with a transfer of copyright to ACM. The authors agree to transfer all their copyright rights to ACM, blah blah...

Wait a minute! Why does ACM needs to own the copyright? No good reason. To publish and distribute the article, ACM just needs a non-exclusive license to print and distribute. There is no need to own the copyright.

If we follow ACM's logic, any artist that wants to see their work exhibited in any museum, they need to give up the ownership of their work and give full ownership of their creations to the museum. For free. Without expecting any royalties back in return. Ever. Furthermore, the museum instead of promoting the work, they would lock it in a "patron members access only". For all others, the museum would demand a separate entrance ticket to show each of the collection pieces.  (Say, for a friendly price of $5 to see each painting?) .

Anyway, let's not belabor the point with copyright. We know that ACM's policy sucks. We know that ACM is a bureaucracy serving just itself and not its members or the profession. Let's move on.

Let's move to the point that really got me fired up.

Protecting ACM from liability

What got me really pissed was the last part of the agreement:

Liability Waiver

* Your grant of permission is conditional upon you agreeing to the terms set out below.

I hereby release and discharge ACM and other publication sponsors and organizers from any and all liability arising out of my inclusion in the publication, or in connection with the performance of any of the activities described in this document as permitted herein. This includes, but is not limited to, my right of privacy or publicity, copyright, patent rights, trade secret rights, moral rights or trademark rights.

All permissions and releases granted by me herein shall be effective in perpetuity unless otherwise stipulated, and extend and apply to the ACM and its assigns, contractors, sublicensed distributors, successors and agents.

So, not only we should donate "voluntarily" ownership of our copyright to ACM . We also need to protect ACM from any liability.

In other words, ACM wants to get all the upside from owning the copyright, without ever distributing royalties to the contributing authors. (Not that it would be worth much. It is a matter of principle and a signal of respect to the authors, not an issue of monetary importance.) At the same, ACM also wants the authors to provide guarantee that if there is any problem with the copyright, the author will be the one liable for the damages.

All the upside for ACM, no revenue to the authors. All the downside to the authors, no obligations for ACM.

Thank you ACM for caring so much about your members. You will not be missed when you disappear.

Yours truly,
A lifetime member of ACM.

PS: In retrospect, the title of the post is offensive: From Wikipedia's definition of serfdom: "Serfdom included the forced labor of serfs bound to a hereditary plot of land owned by a lord in return for protection". In other words, the slave owners took the product of slaves' work, but in return they provided the protection and military support, to defend the slaves that were working the land. ACM also wants the slaves to "protect the land" as well. I owe an apology to the slave owners for the comparison.