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Author Rights: Managing Copyrights

Copyright is a valuable asset, even for academic authors. Although they seldom profit from their works of authorship, copyright, when properly managed, provides a level of control that can be very useful in ensuring the greatest possible impact for scholarship. Librarians, who are often called upon to advise on these matters, need to feel competent and well-versed on the basic principles of copyright. Copyright law gives the creator of copyrighted works exclusive rights, including principally:

  • to reproduce the work in copies (e.g., as photocopies or online),
  • to distribute copies of the work;
  • to prepare translations and other derivative works,
  • to perform or display the work publicly;
  • to authorize others to exercise any of these rights.

Research papers and related scholarly products are protected by copyright as soon as the author fixes them in a tangible medium, including electronic media. At most colleges and universities, authors own the copyright in, at least, their traditional academic works. Librarians should advise their faculty members to become familiar with the intellectual property ownership policies at their own institution.  Here are some sample points to bring to the attention of faculty during outreach conducted at department meetings, brown-bag lunch sessions, or simply in a flyer or letter:

  • When you write an article for a scholarly journal, you are typically asked to sign a publication agreement or a copyright transfer agreement. These documents, which are legally binding contracts, usually transfer your ownership of copyright to the publisher and determine the uses you will be able to make of your own work in the future.
  • Copyright is a bundle or package of the rights cited above. Scholars (creators) can unbundle these rights and transfer only some of them to publishers. For example:
  • If the creator transfers ownership of the copyright, he or she can still retain the right to do certain things like include articles in course packs, or place articles on a personal web site or an institutional repository. Many publication agreements address the rights retained by the author(s), and it is vital to understand these rights and negotiate if they are insufficient.
  • If the creator retains ownership of the copyright, he or she can grant a non-exclusive license to the publisher, typically for the right of first formal publication.
  • Before signing a publication agreement, review the rights you retain to ensure you can use your work in the ways you want. If the publisher’s standard agreement doesn’t give you the control you want, suggest changes.

Science Commons has created a Scholars Addendum Engine that generates a PDF you can distribute to faculty as an example of what they can attach to their publication agreement. The SPARC Author Addendum is a legal instrument that modifies the publisher’s agreement and allows you to keep key rights to your articles. The Creative Commons site is another widely consulted resource which provides deep background and innovative solutions for authors who would like to retain control of their products. These resources can be used directly as part of negotiating a publication agreement or they can provide a useful vehicle for reflection about what is important to an author before she begins negotiating. For librarians giving presentations on author’s rights or distributing flyers or letters to faculty, we suggest that a sample Author Addendum accompany the points above. Successful case studies may also be useful, especially if they demonstrate how a colleague in the same or a related field has been able to shake the status quo. Many case studies are available on the Create Change site , which examines changes in how scholarship is conducted and communicated across a variety of fields. The foundational message is that negotiation is not only possible, but is vital for maintaining control over one's own scholarly work. More details about how to negotiate and what to look for can be found in this briefing paper on "Copyright and Authors' Rights" from OASIS.



Podcast interview on "some rights reserved"
In this podcast, Molly Kleinman, copyright specialist at the University of Michigan Library, discusses Creative Commons and the current state of copyright law with College & Research Libraries News editor-in-chief David Free. Kleinmans’s article “The Beauty of ‘Some Rights Reserved’” appears in the November 2008 issue of C&RL News.