Who Owns Conference Presentations?

Here’s a nice little brouhaha. It seems that the American Political Science Association has appropriated the copyright of papers presented at its annual conference as a condition of presenting. An APSA conference presenter recently found one of her papers for sale on a for-profit site called AllAcademic Inc. and wrote about it in outrage at the blog Crooked Timber. More outrage by others followed in the comments to her post. In response to the comments, the executive director of the APSA wrote in and said the papers were posted to AllAcademic Inc. by mistake and that they would be taken down. He continued to assert copyright, however, and maintained that the papers would be accessible for free in an open access archive. From the point of view of distribution, this seems like a good outcome, except some profs are still miffed at the claim that they have surrendered copyright as a condition of presenting at the conference. Perhaps rightfully so.

Who should own copyright to this work and what should they do with it? I heard Kenneth Crewes speak on copyright recently, and one of the most provocative things he said was that a very good case could be made that the scholarly work that professors do is really work for hire, and therfore their college or university could make a strong claim to owning the copyright. He backed off immediately, saying most university administrators would be crazy to push this, as it would enrage the professoriate, roil the whole system, and in fact make a lot more work for them. And yet, wouldn’t it be interesting…

(Note to self: look into ALA’s policy on conference presentations and go back and read the emails about the copyright of this blog.)

7 thoughts on “Who Owns Conference Presentations?

  1. I agree with Kenny Crews that a strong argument could be made for university ownership of faculty work, and that institutions would be foolish to press the case. Most universities, in fact, adopt policies that explicit assert faculty ownership except in defined situations. But the situation is very different for a conference sponsor. The presenters are not in any sense employees of the sponsor, so traditional work for hire does not apply. The provision for when a work created by an independent contractor is a work for hire is very limited, and it is hard to see how a conference presentation could fall within it. The APSA’s claim seems absurd on its face unless there is an explicit, written agreement with each presenter stating that the presentation is a work for hire, and even if such agreements do exist it is not clear that the presentations fit into any of the catergories of work the copyright statute allows to be work for hire in its definition of that term.

  2. “…one of the most provocative things he said was that a very good case could be made that the scholarly work that professors do is really work for hire, and therfore their college or university could make a strong claim to owning the copyright. He backed off immediately, saying most university administrators would be crazy to push this, as it would enrage the professoriate, roil the whole system, and in fact make a lot more work for them.”

    Spot on regarding the predicted reaction to such a proposal. Administrators at University College London tried this a few years ago and backed down after they received responses such as this one from the Economics Department:

    “I attach the Department of Economics’ response to the document on IPRs. You will see that it comes with 100% support from the Department. I have been in this College as a Professor and Head of Department for 17 years and I have been an academic for 35 years. I can honestly say that I have never before seen such an ill-conceived and ruinous document as this.”

  3. Right. I don’t think APSA’s claim is that it is work for hire, sorry if I gave that impression. I think APSA is saying if you want to present at the conference then you have to give the copyright of your paper to them. Similar bargain to publishing a book or in a journal.

  4. And since conference proceedings are often published, this doesn’t seem so different than many contracts (in print or implied) that journals use. It streamlines the organization/publisher’s ability to do things with that content, even if they aren’t profiting from that content. (An agreement to make the material available in full text in an aggregated database, for example, would be complicated if each author controlled all rights.) Unfortunately here it seems to have been so streamlined it slipped right out of control and was being resold by a partner without the knowledge of the copyright owner (the professional organization. oops)

    ALA is pretty enlightened in their contracts, iirc. They tend to be win/win for the organization and the author.

    A slight tweak to Marc’s post. You very often retain copyright when you write a book. (Some academic book publishers claim copyright, but it varies; in trade publishing the author almost always retains copyright.) What the publishers own is the exclusive right to publish it. And that’s pretty powerful stuff. For example, when Google or Amazon approaches publishers about digitizing books, the author is not generally involved because the publisher either has explicitly obtained electronic rights or they have assumed them because of the way older contracts were written – see the Random v. Rosetta dispute. So when those guys say they’re dealing with copyright holders – uh, technically they usually aren’t.

  5. It seems though that the conference organizers do not need to own the copyright to publish proceedings. They only need some sort of permission (e.g., unlimited license to publish and disseminate).

    I’d like to know more about ALA as an enlightened organization in this area. That hasn’t been my personal experience.

    ACRL has been amenable though – in fact, Marc, I re-negotiated the copyright agreement for being a member of the blog team for this blog. ACRL has a right to publish my text. But, I kept the copyright. Ironically, that took place through the ACRL committee appointment form since blogging here is actually a committee appointment, not a writing/publishing contract. Or, at least – it was for me. Yea for ACRL for negotiating!

  6. At least with articles I’ve published in ALA and ACRL publications, I keep copyright and can do pretty much whatever I want, so long as I don’t post it before their publication. (American Libraries apparently assumes a three-month exclusive. I’m not sure why they do that.)

    Whether that counts as “enlightened” – well, it’s better than a lot of journal publishers. Maybe my threshold of enlightenment is modest :-)

  7. Regarding Marc’s note to check on ACRL’s copyright stance on conference presentations:
    Barbara is correct about authors retaining copyright and this extends to those presenting at ACRL conferences. Presenters do retain the copyright to their work, giving ACRL permission to publish or post it.

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