Skip to Main Content
Ask A Librarian

Authors' Rights & Copyright

What is normally included a publishing agreement?

Subscription based  journals’ (as opposed to open access journals)  publishing agreements will ask that you transfer, assign, or license all of your copyrights without monetary compensation. In exchange your article is published in a journal, which carries with it the opportunity for scholarly impact, promotion, and career advancement.

If you are publishing a scholarly book, the publishing agreement, transfer, license or assignment will often involve a monetary transaction: You receive a lump sum or royalties based on how many books are sold. In exchange, the publisher generally receives the right control the price of the books, the manner and terms of how the book is published, and if new editions or translations are created.

Publishing Agreements vary greatly. For example, they might ask for rights:

  • To publish only in certain types of media (e.g. print books but not eBooks) or markets (e.g. Canada Only)
  • To transfer all of the five exclusive rights you hold
  • To transfer all of your exclusive rights, and license some back to you
  • To license all or some of your rights on an exclusive basis
  • To license all or some of your rights on an non-exclusive basis  

Sometimes with journals, the “exclusivity” period is only for 6 mos. or a year, after which point you’re able to post copies of the work on other sites or use it in other ways.

Publishing Agreements=Restrictions

Often publishers agreements create significant barriers, for authors who want to reuse their work, or allow others to use it. Negotiating changes to these standard agreements can help authors avoid unfortunate barriers to reuse and sharing.

Examples of some common future uses that may not be allowed:

You wish to have an eBook version made available, or for a copy to be made available open access with a Creative Commons license

Your book has gone out of print, and you wish to have it made available through a print on demand service

You wish or have been offered to have your work  translated 

Depending on how similar subsequent articles are to your original, even these might count as “derivative works”—as to which the right to create may have been assigned to your publisher.

Some agreements prohibit you from posting a copy of the publisher version of the final article to your personal or departmental website, or a subject, institutional repository

This last point can be very important because some research funders request or require that work created with their funds be made available openly on the web. For example the Ford Foundation now mandates an open licensing policy that states "project grants from the foundation will include a requirement that the grantee widely disseminate all copyrightable products funded by the grant—including white papers, research reports, and websites—and license them under the CC BY 4.0 license"

Author's Rights Checklist

Start making a habit out of carefully reading your publication contracts whenever a piece of your work is accepted. It may be helpful to create a checklist for yourself to make sure you have all the information you need to address your concerns. The following questions could be used to get you started:

  • Do I retain my copyright or transfer it to the publisher?
  • What rights, if any, do I retain? What rights do I lose?
  • Does this agreement restrict the ways in which I can share my work? If so, how?
  • How will accepting this agreement affect my potential readership? Will readers without a journal subscription be able to read my paper?
  • Are there any conditions or terms that I would like to negotiate? 

The Best Option: Publish Open Access

Publish in an Open Access Journal, or other Open Education Resource that allows you to retain your copyright. Unlike traditional publishing agreements you either give them a Non-exclusive License to publish your work, or are bound by a Creative Commons license. A Creative Commons License is a tool that allows others to more easily share and re-use your work while ensuring that you get proper credit.

Types of Publication Agreements

Types of Publication Contracts

Publishing agreements can take a countless numbers of variations, but it can be beneficial to be familiar with three of the most common types.

Transfer of Copyright

Often called an "assignment of copyright" in contracts, a transfer of copyright is the least author-friendly type of publishing agreement as the complete copyright is transferred to the publisher, and the author retains no rights. If you sign a full transfer of copyright, you will have no more rights to your work than you would to any other work in copyright.

Transfer of Copyright, but Author Retains Certain Rights

This type of agreement is more friendly to authors because it allows them to retain certain rights even though the copyright is transferred to the publisher. What these rights are should be spelled out explicitly in the terms of the agreement. It is particularly important to read these types of agreements carefully to make sure that you understand which rights you will retain, and which you will lose.

Author Retains Copyright and Grants a License to the Publisher

Agreements that allow the author to retain copyright are generally the most author-friendly type of publication contract. Under these types of agreements, authors grant publishers a non-exclusive license to publish this article.

Here are some examples of the breadth of Academic Journal Publication Agreements:

However, publisher policies evolve over time and the general terms stated on their web sites can vary from the terms actually sent to authors, so it is important to read the agreement you are signing. The SHERPA/RoMEO database offers a summary of publisher copyright & self-archiving policies. Columbia Law School--Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts has sample clauses found in publishing contracts taken verbatim from the contract and explained in plain English as well as a helpful rating system.