Learning Objectives

  • Become familiar with the concepts of copyright and author’s rights.
  • Understand the connections between copyright and scholarly publishing.

Copyright is probably a term that you’ve heard many times. If you’re anything like me, it’s also probably one that makes you feel anxious, confused, or bored. The good news is that its meaning is actually fairly straightforward.

Copyright.gov is the website of the U.S. Copyright Office, and they offer a succinct definition of copyright:

“Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression.”[1]

Basically, anytime someone creates something new and original (a story, a drawing, a sculpture, a movie, a song, etc.) and captures it in a tangible medium (a typed document, a piece of paper, a lump of clay, an audio or video recording, etc.), that person owns the copyright to that particular creation. They don’t have to do anything to declare their copyright. The act of creating the thing and expressing it in a tangible medium immediately bestows copyright ownership onto the creator. The U.S. Copyright Office explains that, “registering a work is not mandatory, but for U.S. works, registration (or refusal) is necessary to enforce the exclusive rights of copyright through litigation.”[2]

One of the key concepts in relation to copyright is creativity. There has to be an element of creativity involved for something to be covered by copyright. Facts, for example, do not qualify for copyright. Another important component is fixed expression. If I have an idea for a movie script, but I don’t actually write it, I do not own the copyright to it. Only once I sit down at my computer and type it out do I own the copyright.

When you own the copyright to something, you have certain exclusive rights to it that others do not have (unless you choose to grant them those rights): for example, the right to reproduce or copy it, to share copies with others, to adapt it into new derivative forms, and to display/present/perform it publicly. These rights are important because they allow you to do more with the thing you have created — to build on it, change it, and use it in a variety of settings — for the rest of your life. Anything created after January 1, 1978 is protected by copyright for the entire length of the creator’s lifetime, plus seventy additional years after their death.

Need more clarity about copyright? Check out this brief video overview titled “What is Copyright?” by the U.S. Copyright Office:


Next, let’s consider how scholarly publishing is related to copyright.

Most of the time, when you access and use materials created by others, you’re relationship to copyright is that of a consumer. Perhaps you are using the copyrighted material in accordance with Fair Use[3] or you have asked and received permission from the copyright holder to use the work.

However, sometimes you are actually a creator yourself, and in that case, you own the copyright to the work you have created. For example, when you write a scholarly article, you hold the copyright to that article. What happens if you decide that you want to publish your article in a scholarly journal?

While it might seem natural to assume that you will retain your copyright and simply give the journal publisher permission to publish your article, in fact this often is not the case. Rather, once your article is accepted for publication, many journal publishers will ask you to sign a copyright transfer agreement (CTA) that essentially requires you to relinquish your copyright and give it instead to the publisher.

CTAs are problematic because they mean that going forward, the author may be limited as to how they can use and re-use their own work. For example, there may be restrictions on using the material in instructional or classroom settings, distributing copies to colleagues, or adapting the material to create new works.

Therefore, before you sign a publication contract, it’s very important to read it closely and understand its terms. (Even better: investigate journals’ copyright policies prior to submitting your article for consideration. Sherpa Romeo is extremely useful as a free online index of publisher policies, and many journals include their policies on their website.) Unfortunately, CTAs can be difficult to interpret. They are, after all, a legal contract — and as such, they are often lengthy and contain jargon. It can be overwhelming to decipher them in their entirety. But it’s important to take the time to read a CTA so that you know what you are signing. It’s also important to save a copy for your records so that you can consult it in the future if you don’t remember its exact terms.

If the contract requires you to transfer your copyright, you have to decide what to do. You can agree to give up your copyright (undesirable), choose to publish elsewhere (laborious), or try to negotiate retention of your copyright using an author addendum, such as the one developed by SPARC, “a legal instrument that modifies the publisher’s agreement and allows you to keep key rights to your articles.”[4] Author addendums help authors advocate to retain their rights while interacting with publishers.

If you are able to retain your copyright, you can grant permission to others to re-use or share your work as you see fit. One way to do this is by assigning a Creative Commons (CC) license to your work, signaling to others how and under what conditions they can re-use your work.

Applying a Creative Commons (CC) license to your work allows you to specify what permissions you are granting to others in terms of how they can use/re-use your work. It’s a great way to communicate to others what they can and can’t do with your work going forward. People won’t need to contact you, the author, to ask how they can use it — they’ll know just by looking at the CC license that you’ve selected.

There are six CC licenses from which to choose, and they look like this:


Light gray rectangular infographic with a portrait (vertical) orientation, titled “Licenses”. Running down the left side is a narrow upside-down triangle labeled “Most Free” at the top and “Least Free” at the bottom. The top is a dark green with color gradations as you move down, with six shades of green, six shades of yellow, and ten shades of red. At the bottom is a very dark red. To the right of this triangle there are six rows, each with icons and text. The first row shows an icon of a person in a circle, with the following text: “Attribution CC BY. This license lets you distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the original work, even commercially, as long as you credit the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered.” The second row has the same person icon, and also an icon of a counterclockwise arrow inside a circle. The text in this row reads Attribution-Sharealike CC BY-SA. This license lets you remix, tweak, and build up on the original work even for commercial purposes, as long as you credit the original work and license your new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copylet” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on the work should carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia.” The third row has the person icon, and also an icon of an equal sign inside a circle. The text reads “Attribution-NoDerivs CC BY-ND. This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to the original work.” The fourth row has the person icon and an icon of a dollar sign crossed out inside a circle. The text reads “Attribution-NonCommerical CC BY_NC. This license lets you remix, tweak, and build upon the original work non-commercially. Your new works must be non-commercial and acknowledge the original work, but you don’t have to license your derivative works on the same terms.” The fifth row has the person icon, the dollar sign icon, and the counterclockwise arrow icon. It reads “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. CC BY-NC-SA This license lets you remix, tweak, and build upon the original work non-commercially, as long as you credit the original work and license your new creations under the identical terms.” The final, sixth row has the person icon, the dollar sign icon, and the equal sign icon. It reads “Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND. This license is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, only allowing you to download the original work and share it with others as long as you credit the original work. You can’t change the original work in any way or use it commercially.”
From Technology Enhanced Learning Blog http://www.dontwasteyourtime.co.uk/elearning/creative-commons-infographic-licenses-explained/

For example, if you want to permit others to share and modify your work — but without generating revenue from it — then you would choose the Attribution-Noncommercial (CC BY-NC) license. Granting permission to others to share or re-use your work, whether by a CC license or some other means, results in greater exposure, discovery, and (ultimately) impact of your work. 

Finally, this chapter concludes with two exercises. First, take a look at a few publication contracts to see what rights authors retain (and relinquish) when they publish their work with these entities. Then, choose which Creative Commons license you think is best for three specific scenarios. If you were in these characters’ shoes, which license would you select?

Exercise 1: Publication Contracts

Working with a partner or in a small group, analyze the following examples of contracts between journal publishers and authors.

Pay particular attention to these questions:

  • How does the agreement handle the issue of copyright? After signing the agreement, who owns the copyright: the author or the publisher?
  • Does the author retain certain rights? If so, what are they? What is the author permitted to do?
  • Do the author’s rights vary according to the version of the article? For example: Does the author have specific rights in relation to the accepted manuscript (the version after undergoing peer review, but without the publisher’s layout and formatting) but not the final published version?
  • Are there things that the author is explicitly not permitted to do with the work after signing the agreement?
  • Does the agreement contain terms that are unfamiliar to you? Can you ascertain their meaning by the context?
  • Do the different agreements contain common elements? What are they?
  • What are the major differences between the agreements?
  • What can you ascertain about the nature of the publication and the publisher by looking at the agreement?
  • Which agreement do you think is most favorable to authors? To publishers? Why?

Exercise 2: Choosing a Creative Commons (CC) License

Take a look at the scenarios listed below. Choose the most appropriate CC license based on the author’s situation, and be prepared to explain your choice.

  • Martha is creating a poster for a conference presentation. It will contain a chart, photographs, and a custom logo, all of which she created. She knows that people will take pictures of it to share with colleagues, but it’s important to her that they credit her work. She also doesn’t want anyone to monetize her designs, even if they change it in some way.
  • Dominique produced an instructional film to introduce her students to a new concept. She’d like to allow colleagues to use it in their classrooms, too — but she doesn’t want others to extract clips or snippets for use in some other way. Rather, she wants the film to remain as a whole, not spliced into other videos or otherwise reconfigured.
  • Jeremiah holds a collection of letters written by his grandfather, now deceased, who was a well-known politician. Prior to his death, his grandfather named Jeremiah as the copyright beneficiary of the letters. Jeremiah has decided to gift them to the Special Collections library of the university his grandfather attended. He asks the library to digitize the letters and put them online so that anyone can view them and use them however they see fit, with no restrictions.


  1. U.S. Copyright Office. "What is Copyright?" https://www.copyright.gov/what-is-copyright/
  2. U.S. Copyright Office. "What is Copyright?" https://www.copyright.gov/what-is-copyright/
  3. Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL). "Scholarly Communication Toolkit: Fair Use." https://acrl.libguides.com/scholcomm/toolkit/fairuse
  4. Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). "Author Rights: Using the SPARC Author Addendum to Secure your Rights as the Author of a Journal Article." https://sparcopen.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/SPARC-Author-Rights-Brochure-2006.pdf