The (mis)use of copyright

Usually when pointy-headed developer types talk about licensing and distribution rights, we’re referring to software – either our own, tools that we’re using, or support utilities that we’re redistributing.

Earlier this week, I was exposed to another form of licensing concern. I was submitting my paper to Agile2007, and this little snippet caught my attention:

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The copyright to the paper will be owned by IEEE press. Please indicate that you will be assigning the right to IEEE. By marking the checkbox, you indicate that you have the right to assign copyright, and that you will give the conference permission to print copies of your handouts for conference participants.

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So if my paper is accepted, I have to transfer the copyright to IEEE press. The first problem with this is that I don’t actually own the copyright on the paper, and don’t have the authority to transfer it. In Canada, the author generally retains copyright unless it the work is performed during the course of employment. Since I wrote the paper for Intelliware, on company time, Intelliware is the owner of the copyright and is the only entity capable of transferring it.

The second problem is that if copyright is transferred, the original copyright holder loses the right to reproduce the work. For example, we couldn’t post a copy of the paper on i-proving after we transferred the copyright.

I’m not sure why the IEEE requires me to forfeit copyright in order to publish a paper in some conference proceedings which will be read by maybe (let’s face it) a couple of hundred people at most. This came up when I submitted my last paper, and at that time Intelliware came up with a compromise where we retained the right to republish the article as needed.

All that the IEEE really needs is permission to print and reprint the paper as needed. There’s no need for full copyright transfer for that to occur: we can just agree to let them print the paper as they need to.

Another approach would be to license the paper under some version of a Creative Commons license, which reserves some rights for the author/copyright holder, but allows for others to distribute the work. Here’s a sample.

After consulting with senior people here, I did check the checkbox that promised to transfer copyright to the IEEE. If the paper is actually accepted, we’ll see what we can do about hanging on to the right to republish the work. And if the paper is rejected, I’ll just post it on i-proving and we’ll be done with the whole thing.

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