A couple days ago, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) sent an email to its members informing them that the O’Reilly publishing platform was ending their longstanding licensing agreement. This agreement allowed ACM members to access online O’Reilly content. Since an ACM yearly membership is roughly 1/5 the price of an annual O’Reilly subscription, you can see why the ACM membership was so valuable, and why it was in O’Reilly’s best interest to cancel.

I am not going to say that the O’Reilly benefit was not a wonderful benefit. I used it1, and it was nice to have as a reference point. It was never my go to spot, though. I have other resources and learning platforms that I find far more useful. O’Reilly is really not what it used to be compared to other learning platforms and libraries. The books used to be amazing. They were required reading for developers, system engineers, and network admins alike. Now, they are still good, but not required. I get them in Humble Bundles because I really don’t value them enough to buy separately. I was paying exactly the amount I wanted to for O’Reilly. I don’t see enough value in their platform to pay more, so I won’t. That they are no longer a part of the ACM is a bummer, but not a major loss in the long run. In fact, as I read the Twitter reactions, I am beginning to think this was a blessing in disguise.

The ACM is an organization that does a lot of amazing work. Its members, both in industry and academia, are often working on fascinating problems and technologies, and they share what they are learning with each other. There is so much to learn from ACM members and the work they are doing. I joined ACM for the SIGDOC conference. I am not presenting this year, but I am still a member of SIGDOC because the SIGDOC group is amazing. As amazing as they are, they are only one of several active groups in the ACM. I regularly wander the site and read or catch a webinar when I can. I stayed with the ACM because it balances the same line I do. It bridges the academic/professional divide, and that is where I want to be. I haven’t been as active as maybe I should be in the organization, but I am there because I support the work it does.

That is not true of everyone, though. It is apparent that there is a distinct set of the ACM membership whose sole interest was the O’Reilly access. An ACM membership was seen as the cheaper price for access. This is a problem for ACM and for O’Reilly. Sure, ACM gets the money from these members, but as an organization, it’s hollow. It is a flow-through point, not a destination or community. Think of it like neighborhood where a buch of rich assholes buy all the property just so they can attend a nearby festival once a year. What happens to a community when most of its members are not interested in it? It dies. Meanwhile, O’Reilly is stuck with a bunch freeloaders who popped in from next door2, who don’t pay for the full service, consume resources, and generally live off what its actual user base is paying. It is a lose-lose scenario.

I have no doubt that ACM will lose members because of this. I am hopeful they have a plan to manage through this. If they do, they could come out stronger on the other end and with a community of members who are focused on ACM and not a random perk. That said, they do need to reflect on their learning section and what it should become. While the license agreement with O’Reilly was less than O’Reilly wanted, I am sure it wasn’t chump change. I am hoping that some of that money (cognizant that budgets will drop with a reduction in membership) can be redirected into new partnerships and learning strategies.

In the end, this may end up as a net good for ACM as an organization. Sometimes, organizations become locked into certain structures of value that seem impossible to break until they just do. It is at these moments that growth (or, if we’re being honest, collapse) occurs. You can’t go back, so you might as well go forward.


  1. In fact the only issue I have had with my ACM account was when I accidentally let it lapse, and after I renewed couldn’t get access to a reference I was looking for on O’Reilly. ↩︎

  2. To O’Reilly’s credit, they have been dealing with this freeloading problem for a long time. O’Reilly books were one of the most pirated tech materials I have ever seen. When it comes to piracy, some tech folk take from their own just as easily as they do others. ↩︎