The ACS Journal Publishing Agreement and the Other Path Forward

If you've ever published in an ACS journal, you may remember a short form you need to fill out in which you transfer copyright to the ACS. Well, the rules are apparently set to change in the next few weeks. Read on to find out how.

The ACS Journal Publishing Agreement

This month the ACS will start replacing the ACS Copyright Status Form with a Journal Publishing Agreement (JPA) (announcement). Unlike the previous Copyright Status Form, the JPA grants back to authors specific rights:

  • Reuse of Figures
  • Reuse in Teaching or In-House Training
  • Presentation at Conferences
  • Sharing with Colleagues
  • Posting Submitted Works on Websites and Repositories
  • Posting Accepted and Published Works on Websites and Repositories

What it Means

Before getting too excited about all of this, be sure to read the fine print. In some cases these new rights are simply restatements of existing ACS policy. For example, the only ways to share your published work with colleagues are through the ACS Articles on Request or AuthorChoice programs, but this is already true today. And in some cases, the rights ACS is 'giving' you were already granted to you (and others in the U.S.) by law under 'Fair Use'.

One of the most interesting changes has to do with the status of Supporting Material. From the JPA Section I Paragraph 2:

The copyright ownership transferred to ACS in any copyrightable* Supporting Information accompanying the Submitted Work is nonexclusive. The Author and the ACS agree that each has unlimited use of Supporting Information. Authors may use or authorize the use of material created by the Author in the Supporting Information associated with the Submitted or Published Work for any purpose and in any format.

* Title 17 of the United States Code defines copyrightable material as "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression" (Chapter 1, Section 102). To learn more about copyrightable material see "Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright" on the Publications Division website, at

Apparently, after transferring copyright to ACS, the ACS grants you a license to use the Supporting Material for any purpose and in any format.

The Bigger Issue

The JPA moves in the right direction, and ACS should be acknowledged for this. However, a far more important question remains:

Why should Authors need to transfer copyright to the ACS in the first place? Why wouldn't a perpetual, nonexclusive, transferrable license from Author to ACS work just as well?

The only answer I've been able to find comes from the FAQ:

Transfer of authors' copyright to ACS serves several useful ends. The ACS generally has more and better resources to defend and protect copyright than do most individual authors. The ACS provides a single, central contact for dealing with grants of copyright permissions, and allows consistent policies to be used to govern copying uses. The transfer Agreement itself grants back to the authors considerable rights for how they may use material they have created. As a scientific society, the ACS accepts the responsibility for promoting the scientific integrity of published work, and defense of copyright is an element in that process.

For the moment let's set aside the condescension and irony in these statements.

Instead, let's think about why a non-exclusive license agreement, from Authors to ACS, couldn't accomplish everything the ACS says it needs with respect to its publishing business, while preserving the ability of authors to maximize the benefits of their creations.