Author Rights

When you write a manuscript for a peer-reviewed journal, you own the full copyrights to that manuscript. If you decide to publish in an open access, you generally retain your full copyrights even after the article has been published. However, if you choose to publish in a traditional subscription access journal, you will often be required to sign a form transferring some - or all - of your copyrights to the publisher. These forms go by different names - publishing agreements, copyright transfer agreements, publication agreements, journal publishing agreement, etc. - and they outline exactly what you can and cannot do with your own article. After transferring your copyrights to the publisher, you generally have very little to say in how your work is used later. All too often, these publishing agreements restrict the dissemination of your scholarship, and your impact is actually lessened.

Think about this: the publication process is long. You spend a great deal of time and effort conducting research and putting together an article worthy of publication. The steps in this process can take months and even years.

Signing the author agreement can be be the very last step, and it presents challenges when you're eager to simply be done with it. Publishers sometimes add to the pressure by giving you little notice, saying it's "just a formality," or that the agreement needs to be returned to them in a day or two. We urge you to be aware of what you'll need to sign long before you've put all your eggs in one journal's basket. It's wise to figure out if a particular journal can accommodate what you want before the very last minute.

Transferring your copyrights, in part or in whole, doesn't have to be the end of the story. When you sign a copyright transfer form, YOU can decide which rights you want to keep and which you want to give away. Understanding the effect of fully exercising your author rights can help you make more informed choices about how and where you choose to publish your work.

Your Work. Your Rights.
  • The author is the copyright holder. As the author of a work you are the copyright holder unless and until you transfer the copyright to someone else in a signed agreement.
  • Assigning your rights matters. Normally, the copyright holder possesses the exclusive rights of reproduction, distribution, public performance, public display, and modification of the original work. An authors who has transferred copyright without retaining some of these rights must ask permission unless the use is one of the statutory exemptions in copyright law.
  • The copyright holder controls the work. Decisions concerning use of the work, such as distribution, access, pricing, updates, and any use restrictions belong to the copyright holder. Authors who have transferred their copyright without retaining any rights may not be able to place the work on course web sites, copy it for students or colleagues, deposit the work in SHAREOK, upload it to their own website, or even reuse portions in a subsequent work such as in a thesis or dissertation! That's why it is important to think about and retain the rights you need.
  • Transferring copyright doesn't have to be all or nothing. The law allows you to transfer copyright while holding back rights for yourself and others.
Scrutinize the Publication Agreement

Read the publication agreement with great care. Publishers' agreements have traditionally been used to transfer copyright or key use rights from author to publisher. They are written by publishers and may capture more of your rights than are necessary to publish the work. Ensuring the agreement is balanced and has a clear statement of your rights is up to you.

Publishing agreements are negotiable. Publishers require only your permission to publish an article, not a wholesale transfer of copyright. Hold onto rights to make use of the work in ways to serve your needs and that promote education and research activities.

Value the copyright in your intellectual property. A journal article is often the culmination of years of study, research, and hard work. The more the article is read and cited, the greater its value. But if you give away control in the copyright agreement, you may limit its use. Before transferring ownership of your intellectual output, understand the consequences and options.

As an author, you will want to be specifically mindful to:

  • Retain the rights you want
  • Use and develop your own work without restriction, including use in a thesis or dissertation
  • Increase access for education and research
  • Receive proper attribution when your work is used
  • Deposit your work in SHAREOK where it will be permanently and openly accessible
What Are Your Negotiating Options?

Once you figure out what future uses you do or might want to make from your work, you can explore what options you have to preserve necessary rights. It may not always be possible to successfully negotiate changes to your publisher's agreement. But, it's often worth trying. Generally speaking, there are a few main approaches you could take:

Transfer Your Copyrights But Reserve Certain Rights or Licenses for Yourself

If you already know exactly what kinds of uses you want to make - such as posting to a personal or departmental website, making a later derivative work such as a translation, use in your dissertation, etc. - then you can try expressly adding language like the following after the sentences or paragraphs in which transfer occurs: "Notwithstanding the foregoing..." or "Except that nothing in this paragraph shall limit [author's name] right to," and then specifying the rights you wish to retain. Likewise, if you're being asked to provide "exclusive" rights that would prohibit you from making certain uses of your own work that you know you want to make, you may wish to strike this language and insert "non-exclusive" for these particular rights.

You can also expressly include what are called "reversion" or "out-of-print" clauses. These clauses assign copyright to a publisher for only as long as the work is still "in print" - after which point, copyright reverts to the author. Of course, agreements differ in how they define out-of-print, and there's a great FAQ section by the Authors Alliance that discusses this. Reversion clauses can be incredibly useful to ask for if they are not already built into your agreement, because they streamline the process for getting your rights back if the publisher decides, for instance, to stop publishing your book. The reversion clauses will probably differ in terms of the "triggering" event, and the steps you must take to exercise your reversion right once the triggering event has occurred.

Retain Copyrights But Grant Certain Licenses to the Publisher

Alternatively, you might be able to negotiate for retaining your copyright and instead granting exclusive licenses to your publisher. Some publishers may be satisfied with, for instance, being given "exclusive worldwide first publication rights" in certain or all languages. Granting a "first publication" license can mean you get to keep rights to do other things with your work, such as posting copies to your website, creating adaptations or books that incorporate the original manuscript, etc.

If You've Already Assigned Your Copyright, Can You Get It Back?

Sometimes, you can get your rights back even if you've assigned them away!

Getting Rights Back By Contract

Even if your publisher agreement doesn't expressly have a reversion clause, you could try negotiating for rights reversion with your publisher anyway - particularly where the book is out-of-print or circulation. Publishers might be willing to assign rights back to you if they have no future commercial plans for your work.

For a great guide on how to later negotiate a reversion of rights, even if the publishing agreement you signed didn't contain one, check out Chapter VI of Authors Alliance's guide Understanding Rights Reversion (pp. 70-100). You can also try Columbia Law School's Keep Your Copyrights Guide - in particular, the section on Getting Your Rights Back.

Getting Rights Back by Statute

Alternatively, there is a (somewhat-complicated-to-assert) right that arises automatically under copyright statutes. This is called Termination of Transfer.

For works created after 1978, Section 203 of the Copyright Act allows for the termination of transfer after a certain period of time has lapsed. But the conditions to exercise the right are strict.

Here's the 20,000-mile overview:

  • A 5-year window opens 35 years after you have transferred your copyrights (of, if you have granted certain publication rights, then after 35 years after publication or 40 years after the grant of those rights - whichever comes first).
  • During that 5-year window, you can obtain a termination of transfer. But...
  • trigger termination within that 5-year window, you first have to have given advance notice to the transferee. Specifically, the author or certain heirs must issue a notice giving at least two (but no more than ten) years' advance notice of the termination date. Further, the Copyright Office has issued rules detailing what must be included in such a termination notice.

Because the statutory operation of these provisions is complicated, Authors Alliance and Creative Commons have tried to make it easier for authors to determine whether they qualify for termination of transfer rights. You can get started with their Termination of Transfer Tool.

If you're interested in learning even more about the statutory Termination of Transfer, you can check out:

Try an Addendum

Not sure what kind of modifying language to use? Addenda try to do the work for you.

One such useful tool is from the organization SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), which works to enable the open sharing of research outputs and educational materials. They've tried to take the guess work out of publishing agreement modifications with their SPARC Author Addendum.

The SPARC Author Addendum is a legal instrument that modifies the publisher's agreement so you may keep certain rights to your articles. (Also per their website: "The Author Addendum is a free resource developed by SPARC in partnership with Creative Commons and Science Commons, established non-profit organizations that offer a range of copyright options for many different creative endeavors.")

There are a handful of other "pre-fab" addenda out there. For instance, Science Commons also has a Scholar's Copyright Addendum Engine which generates a PDF form that you can attach to a journal publisher's agreement to reserve various rights for yourself.

Learn More

Content on this webpage was derived from "Author Rights"by OU Libraries and used here under a CC BY 4.0 International License.