Why is copyright important for authors?

Why should WashU authors care about copyright? Knowledge of copyright, especially author rights, helps authors of scholarly works make informed publishing decisions such as where to publish and how the work will be used after publication.

The goal of copyright is to incentivize creation of new and useful works for the benefit of society as a whole. WashU authors typically retain copyright for scholarly works they create which is based on the mission of the university to generate, disseminate, and apply knowledge. There are many options for authors to disseminate and publish their works: journal articles, books, book chapters, preprints, case reports, and others. Most WashU authors publish their works in scholarly journals involving collaboration with a publisher as part of the publication process. The purpose of this post is to outline copyrights for authors based on two journal publication models: Traditional Publication and Open Access.

Authors are responsible for evaluating the integrity, history, practices and reputation of publishers and journals they consider for publication. Part of this responsibility includes determining the publication model used by the publisher and journal and reviewing publication or license agreements from publishers before signing. Many publishers offer authors options for managing their copyrights with flexible use conditions that meet the needs of both parties. Authors no longer have to transfer all their rights in a single bundle in exchange for publication.

Copyright is a Bundle

Authors retain all rights to their works under U.S. Copyright Law when it is “fixed in a tangible medium,” and this bundle of rights allows authors to have exclusive rights to authorize or to:

  • Reproduce/reuse the work
  • Modify or create derivatives of the work
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Display the work publicly
  • Perform the work publicly

WashU authors typically retain copyright in scholarly works they create—unless and until those rights are transferred to a publisher. Rights retained by authors and the rights transferred to publishers depend on the publication model authors select. Generally speaking, there are two main publication models for journal articles: Traditional and Open Access (OA).

Traditional Publication Model

  • Authors transfer some or all copyrights to the publisher upon acceptance of publication.
  • No article processing charge (APC) is required.
  • Subscription is required to read the final published version.
  • Readers need permission from the publisher to reuse the final published version.
  • Authors may need permission from the publisher to reuse content from the final published version.

Open Access (OA) Model

  • The work is governed under an open license (Creative Commons).
  • Article processing charge (APC) is often required.
  • No subscription is required to read the final published version.
  • Authors and readers can download, print, distribute, display and modify the work depending on the terms of the license.

A review of each publication model and copyright follows:

Traditional Publication Model

Under a traditional publication model, authors submit a manuscript for peer review to a journal and upon acceptance of publication, most rights are transferred to the publisher in exchange for publication in a journal. There are no Article Processing Charges (APCs). The authors may retain some limited rights. Authors (all authors, not just the corresponding author) are encouraged to read the publisher agreement forms carefully to avoid downstream frustration and to determine whether the terms of the agreement let them use their work as they might wish. What rights do the authors retain, and what rights do publishers reserve? Transferring copyrights enables publishers to disseminate the work, grant licensing rights to a third party, or transfer copyrights to a new publisher. Publishers can license certain rights back to authors, which may include the right to post the work in an institutional repository to share the work with colleagues or provide copies to students in classes, to publish the work in a different language, and to reuse illustrations, charts, or graphs for future works. However, authors cannot authorize the use of their work by others or republish (for example, a translation) as they no longer hold the copyright to the work. Authors may have to ask the publisher for permission or even pay to use their own work. To avoid this, authors should confirm that the publisher agreement explicitly outlines any desired future uses.

Open Access Publication Model

Under the Open Access publication model, authors retain all exclusive rights to the bundle of copyrights. Open Access publishing enables broader dissemination compared to traditional publishing because readers do not need to pay for access, nor do readers or journals need to seek permission to reuse because many Open Access licenses outline how a work can be used. The drawback to publishing under the Open Access model is that authors usually have to pay an Article Processing Charge (APC), which can be costly. WashU Libraries, including Becker Medical Library, participate in publisher agreements that allow for a waiver or discount of APCs for WashU Corresponding Authors. See listings: WashU Libraries and Becker Medical Library.

Most Open Access licenses are governed under the terms of a Creative Commons license. There are six Creative Commons licenses and the public domain designation, CC0, that offer a standardized way for copyright holders to grant others permission to use their work under copyright law. Per Creative Commons: “The presence of a Creative Commons license on a copyrighted work answers the question, What can I do with this work?” All six Creative Commons licenses start with CC for Creative Commons and BY, which stipulates that credit must be given to the creator. Other acronyms used for Creative Commons licenses are NC, ND, and SA (see Table: Acronyms in Creative Commons Licenses). Depending on the terms of the Creative Commons license, users may not be allowed to reuse work for commercial purposes (NC) or create derivatives of the work (ND). The CC BY license is often the default license publishers use for Open Access publications, allowing for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials. To prevent a work from being used for commercial purposes, a CC BY-NC license is recommended. Some authors opt to assign a Public Domain designation (CC0) enabling creators to put their works into the worldwide public domain.

Acronyms in Creative Commons Licenses

  BY  Credit must be given to the creator
  CC  Creative Commons
  NC  Only noncommercial uses of the work are permitted
  ND  No derivatives or adaptations of the work are permitted
  SA  Adaptations must be shared under the same terms
  0  No rights reserved (Public Domain Dedication)

Publisher Caveats

Many publishers are creative in confusing authors when presented with options to publish a work under a Traditional or Open Access publication model. All publishers vary in how information is presented to authors with different terms and language to describe publication options and copyrights. Some frequent terms publishers use include exclusive rights, non-exclusive rights, limited rights, indemnification, embargo periods, and others.

Publishers often use the terms Open Access and Public Access interchangeably, which can be another source of confusion for authors. Stay tuned for a discussion of these terms in a future post.

It is important to point out that authors always retain all copyrights to the final, peer-reviewed manuscript version of works that are later published as journal articles. Authors also retain rights to any preprints which are manuscripts not yet submitted for peer review.

Recommendations for Authors

Authors are highly recommended to:

  • Communicate with co-authors about publication decisions early.
  • Be aware of any public access mandate requirements for publications and/or data.
  • Review journal websites for information on author rights and publication options.
  • Anticipate any future needs for works such as sharing or re-using.
  • Review publisher agreements and forms carefully (all authors; not just the corresponding author).
  • Retain copies of final, peer-reviewed manuscripts, including tables, figures and supplemental data.
  • Reach out to your campus libraries with any copyright or publication questions.

WashU authors have two libraries that provide guidance to authors on selecting a journal, author rights, and publication models and will review publication or license agreements from publishers.

Becker Medical Library (School of Medicine Campus)

Amy Suiter or Cathy Sarli

Washington University Libraries (Danforth Campus)

Treasa Bane or Micah Zeller

Treasa Bane is the copyright and scholarly communication librarian at the University Libraries. Amy Suiter is the research support librarian at Becker Medical Library. Cathy Sarli is the senior librarian at Becker Medical Library. Micah Zeller is the head of scholarly communication and digital publishing services at the University Libraries. This post is also available here.