Copyright FAQ

Authors commonly give away their ownership rights in exchange for prestigious publication. As a result, publishers are at liberty to control the use of the author’s work, sometimes imposing significant costs and administrative burdens on the reuse of the work for non-commercial education purposes. Rarely does the author have any voice in deciding how the work will be used. Authors are encouraged to read and understand the agreements they sign with publishers.

Your right to exercise any control or to make any use of your published works will generally depend upon the terms of your agreement with the publisher. Some publishers, including scholarly journal publishers, ask only for a first right of publication. Other publishers commonly insist on an assignment of the copyright. If your agreement allows you to retain the copyright, you may still have the authority to control many uses of the work. On the other hand, if you assign the copyright to the publisher, you generally have given up your rights to manage the work. If a third-party user comes to you for permission to use the work, you may no longer have the authority to grant that permission. In fact, if you want to use your own article as part of a later publication, or simply to copy it for a class or conference, you may also have given up that right as well. You should consider carefully the scope of rights that you are assigning to the publisher when you sign your publication agreements. Reading and understanding the agreement may be the most important part of the publication process, and it may directly define your future scholarly efforts. Do not hesitate to anticipate your future needs and to negotiate a contract that best serves your interests.

When you write an article for a scholarly journal, you are typically asked to sign a publication agreement or a copyright transfer agreement. This agreement is usually used to transfer in whole or in part the authors copyright to the publisher.

Many publishers require the assignment of copyrights in publishing agreements. As a faculty author, you generally are responsible for deciding if transfer is appropriate. In reality, publishers usually do not need all rights. In fact, as the author you may need to explicitly retain certain rights to use your publication in future teaching and research. Be sure your contract addresses your specific needs.

You have three general options for managing your copyrights.

  • Option 1: You can continue the frequent existing practice of transferring ownership of copyrights to publishers, in exchange for publication.
  • Option 2: You can reserve some specific rights for themselves (e.g., the right to republish an essay in a book, the right to copy material for instructional purposes, etc.) but otherwise transfer ownership of the copyright to the publisher.
  • Option 3: You can retain ownership of the copyright and license to publishers all the rights the publishers need to conduct their business.

As an author, you should consider retaining any rights that you consider necessary to do your research and teaching without impediment, from posting your article on your website to using your work in your classroom.

An author addendum is a legal instrument that modifies the publisher’s agreement and allows you to keep various key rights to your publications.

You can find the University of Wisconsin-Madison Faculty Senate-endorsed addendum here.

All you need to do is attached the addendum to the publication agreement and return it signed to your publisher. You should also ask that the publisher acknowledge the acceptance of your addendum in some manner.

If the publisher does not accept your changes, take this opportunity to talk with them about their reasons for doing so. You can ask them questions such as: What rights must they hold to conduct their business? How specifically would the rights that you have asked to retain interfere with their business? How might you work together to address these concerns? Perhaps a few further modifications will be all that is needed.

Finally, if the publisher remains adamant, review your options. Do you need to be published in this particular publication? Is there a viable alternative? If so, withdraw the work and let the publisher know why. If not, try to retain some rights, such as the right to use your own work in your research and teaching, to republish the work in a collection of your own works, and to post your work on the web. Many scholarly publishers are already granting such rights.

You may want to consider asking the publisher to accept a Creative Commons License rather than transferring the copyright to them.

Creative Commons is a non-profit corporation founded to assist authors in granting limited rights to readers and “offers a flexible range of protections and freedoms for authors and artists. [They] have built upon the ‘all rights reserved’ of traditional copyright to create a voluntary ’some rights reserved’ copyright.” Its website provides additional guidance.

Contact us at Copyright Working Group.