The ACM is pissing in the well

An open letter I have sent to the ACM.

I have recently been considering joining the ACM, as the most eminent international professional body of software engineers.

On reflection I have decided not to join, because of two actions by the Association in recent weeks that appear strongly contrary to the best interests of its members, and indeed contrary to the interests of all software engineers and scholars of every discipline.

I am referring, firstly, to the shameful take-down requests issued to Ke-Sen Huang, and subsequent conditions imposed over his meticulously assembled pages of links to SIGGRAPH and other academic computer graphics papers.

The second act is the recent official comment from the ACM on the White House’s public feedback to expanding open access to scientific papers. This comment is to the effect that the ACM resists the move towards making scientific papers available to all.

Both these actions bore the signature of the ACM’s Bernard Rous, who has the unbelievable gall to suggest he opposes the creation of a repository of academic papers, because it would undermine the ACM’s revenue from keeping such papers behind a paywall, and that this is a legitimate interest which must be ‘balanced with’ the interest of the ACM members desiring access to those papers.

Mr Rous perhaps needs reminding that the ACM’s has *no such* legitimate interest here. The Association’s entire existence is soley contingent upon the benefit that it provides to its members. These actions seem to me to be in flagrant violation of the ACM’s own Code of Ethics ( and worse, it seems to be contrary to the ACM’s entire charter and purpose.

I have no doubt the ACM performs many valuable services which incur substantial costs, and these costs need to be offset by exploring methods of generating revenue. But this is not an acceptable method. It costs nothing to make these papers available online – and the ACM has no business opposing the establishment of free learning resources that would compete with its own offerings. On the contrary, the ACM is not a profit-making organisation. Its charter to promote learning and education amongst its members, and this can only be best served by promoting and facilitating the free and open access to academic papers such as these.

It seems clear to me that if the ACM does not effect an immediate and total reversal of its policy on these matters, then the Association has changed from the illustrious body it once was, into a force for ill, pissing in the well of knowledge, to be actively opposed by professional, moral software engineers everywhere.

The background to this issue is most clearly expressed here:

I would urge others to boycott any further membership payments to the ACM until this is satisfactorily resolved.


Jonathan Hartley
Software Engineer

One thought on “The ACM is pissing in the well

  1. Good blog post, and your post to the OSTP blog is also nicely done and great to see. I’ll be adding my own comments to the OSTP blog soon, and urge others to do the same. I think the main point, to me, is that federally-funded research should be free to access to the taxpayers that funded it, not $10/article or $100/year via the ACM. A year delay is annoying, but it’s much better than the 95-year copyright that ACM currently has. I don’t consider this proposal a true competitor to the ACM’s Digital Library, as the DL will contain all papers, vs. only federally-funded ones in the OSTP’s proposal. If you asked a researcher if he would want his research to be easily available to the public, I suspect 98% would say “of course” (and the other 2% would be worried about the DL’s profitability).

    ACM’s copyright policy is a separate issue, one that deserves attention from all interested people. If the ACM publishes your article, for example, their contract says that only the ACM has the right to permit others to reprint any images in that article – you cannot. This is a pretty key right for a computer graphics researcher, one that film and game production studios certainly never sign away to the ACM but most individuals do not fight, let alone know about.

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