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Scholarly Communications & Publishing

This guide provides an introduction to some of the central topics in scholarly communication and explains the WVU Libraries' services in these areas.

A brief overview of copyright

Copyright is a law. The Copyright Act of 1976 (as amended) -- also know as Title 17 of the U.S. Code -- grants to authors and creators of their works exclusive rights for using those works for a limited period of time. These protective rights are intended to encourage authors to create new works.

The law gives the creator the exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce the work, in whole or in parts;
  • make other derivative works based on the original;
  • distribute the works by giving, lending, or selling it;
  • perform the work;
  • display the work;
  • for sound recordings, exclusively perform the work publicly via digital transmission. 

Copyright applies to creative works, including books, journal articles, computer software, photographs, and artwork.


Copyright, Ownership, and Publishing

When you publish your research, publishers will ask you to sign an agreement that outlines the conditions under which the work is to be published. These agreements are necessary because, without them, only you as the copyright holder have the rights necessary to publish the work. In other words, a publisher cannot distribute your work without your permission. 

In many cases, publishers will ask you to sign a Copyright Transfer Agreement. A Copyright Transfer Agreement does just what it sounds like - it transfers copyright from you to the publisher. If you transfer your copyright to the publisher, then you will no longer have any of the rights associated with copyright. This severely limits the ways in which you can use your work. 

However, a transfer of copyright does not have to be all or nothing. In fact, you do not even have to transfer your copyright at all for a publisher to be able to publish your work. Rather, you need only grant them a license to reproduce and distribute the work. Alternatively, you could just transfer some of the rights covered under copyright, while retaining others for yourself. 

Intellectual Ownership vs. Legal Ownership

The question of who owns your scholarly work can be confusing, but it can be helpful to distinguish between intellectual ownership and legal ownership. Your work is intellectually yours from the moment it comes into existence, and it remains yours regardless of the manner in which it is published, even if you have signed away your copyright. When a work is intellectually yours, this means that others should credit, cite, or otherwise give you attribution for the work's intellectual content. 

Legal ownership, unlike intellectual ownership, is dependent on who holds the copyright to a work. Although a work may be legally yours at one point, you can transfer this legal ownership through a transfer of copyright agreement. Afterwards, the work is still your intellectually, but no longer yours legally. 

(Thanks to Barbara DeFelice and Jen Green for drawing this helpful distinction). 

Copyright vs. Plagiarism

Like Intellectual Ownership vs. Legal Ownership.  Copyright infringement and plagiarism are related concepts but are distinctly different situations.

Plagiarism is when someone passes off the work of another person as one’s own or without acknowledgement of the original source, this can include passing of concepts, and ideas as ones own.  Plagiarism is avoidable by making sure you always give credit to the original source when using the ideas or works of someone else in your own work. The Plagiarism Resources libguide provides links to in depth explanations of what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.  Plagiarism is a moral and ethical matter, but almost never a legal matter.

Copyright, on the other hand, does not protect ideas. It only protects the expression of those ideas.  A person potentially infringes on copyright when they; copy, distribute, display, perform, or create a derivative work, without the permission of the copyright holder. Copyright infringement is a legal matter.  

As illustrated below it is possible to be both a plagiarist and a copyright infringer or only a plagiarist or a copyright infringer.

Scenario 1 (plagiarism without copyright violation):

If you copy The Waste Land by T.S. Elliot and put your own name on it and turn it in for your poetry composition course, you would be guilty of plagiarism. Since The Waste Land is in the public domain, it is no longer protected by copyright. You are free to make copies, to distribute them, and to preform and display the poem. You can even adapt the poem into a new work. However, by passing the work off as your own, you have plagiarized T.S. Elliot.  

Scenario 2 (copyright violation but not plagiarism):

You are an artist and you create a sculpture that reproduces a famous photograph. You intend to sell your sculpture for thousands of dollars. You give credit to the photographer but have not requested their permission or paid any royalties for reuse. Since you have credited the original source you are not committing plagiarism. However, since you are copying and creating a derivative work without the copyright owner’s permission, you are infringing on their copyright.    

Scenario 3 (both copyright violation and plagiarism):

You copy the lyrics of a song, say for example “The Sign” by Ace of Base, to your Web site and claim those lyrics as your own work. Because "The Sign" is still in copyright, you have violated the copyright on the work and you have also plagiarized the songwriter by claiming the material as your own.

This section of the guide is based Copyright Basics by Jonah McAllister-Erickson is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Copyright Resources