“Shaking Down Science” – Matt Blaze’s criticism of the ACM and the IEEE
For the uninitiated, Matt Blaze has been one of the bigger names in the cryptography world for the past 15 years. Inventor of the Cryptographic File System and the creator of the term “trust management,” Professor Blaze has been involved in virtually all areas of security—from finding a serious flaw in the government’s Clipper chip, to finding a crippling vulnerability in nearly every master-keyed physical lock. Naturally, his work has been published far and wide; a quick search for references to his work yields more than 1200 such citations. Thus, when someone like Dr. Blaze brings up the issue of copyright in academia, people are likely to pay attention.
In a recent blog posting, Professor Blaze decried what he saw as the “Shaking down [of] Science,” that is, computer science professional organizations requiring authors to transfer their copyright for works they submit for publication. He singled out the two largest and oldest societies, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), as having adopted copyright policies that stop the free flow of information. In response, Dr. Blaze has vowed to no longer serve on any committee for either organization, and calls for others to do the same.
To be especially clear, the IEEE and the ACM generally don’t create their own research. They are professional organizations that hold subject-specific conferences at which academics present their research. They then publish the authors’ papers in bound journals and other proceedings. However, both of these organizations feel that the only way to spread information is by requiring authors to give up their exclusive rights in their works.
The ACM’s copyright policy is clear in its requirements: for authors to get anything published with the ACM, authors are required to permanently assign all of their copyrights in the work to the ACM. The ACM defends this by saying that copyright transfer is “more straightforward and easier to administer” than licensing agreements. Their policy also prohibits authors from reposting the work on public repositories without permission from the ACM.
The IEEE’s policy on copyright transfer is somewhat open-ended, but is just as draconian. § 6.3.1 ¶¶ 7-8 note that “all authors…shall transfer to the IEEE in writing any copyright they hold for their individual papers,” but that the IEEE will grant the authors permission to make copies and use the papers they originally authored, so long as such use is permitted by the Board of Directors. The guidelines for what the Board considers a “permitted” use are not clear. The author is also not allowed to change the work absent explicit approval from the organization. The IEEE justifies this practice in the first paragraph of that section, by stating that they will “serve and protect the interests of its authors and their employers.”
Both the IEEE and the ACM then take this scientific research and put it behind a “pay wall,” a page telling would-be researchers that without paying for access, the information they seek is just out of their reach.
While these practices could be defended as sound business, other professional societies make no such requirements of its authors. For example, one of USENIX’s consent forms from 2001 merely requires that the author give up the right to publish the paper for 12 months, though he can offer it for free on his website. According to Dr. Blaze, a board member at the organization, USENIX manages to thrive even though all of its publications are freely available online.
Technology hasn’t come this far because information has been hard to access. On the contrary, many of the tools that let us share information have historically been free to access. For example, the documents which teach programmers how to create Internet-ready applications are all published freely as Requests for Comments, allowing even the hobbyist programmer to understand how to create the next Facebook or Google.
In an update to the blog post, Matt Blaze noted that there had been quite a positive response to his criticism. Perhaps there will be a big enough movement to change these important organizations. The state of the art is established by the free flow of information. Putting research behind a pay wall is the antithesis of what the Internet was supposed to do—enable quick access to data and programs from anywhere in the world. Locking research in a closet does nothing to further this goal.