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Scholarly Communication: Copyright and Author's Rights

An introductory guide to issues in scholarly communication, including scholarly publishing, copyright, author rights, open access, open educational resources, and institutional repositories.

What is Copyright?

The U.S. Copyright Office defines copyright as "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. In copyright law, there are a lot of different types of works, including paintings, photographs, illustrations, musical compositions, sound recordings, computer programs, books, poems, blog posts, movies, architectural works, plays, and so much more!" 

What Rights Does Copyright Provide?

U.S. copyright law provides copyright owners with the following exclusive rights:

  • Reproduce the work.
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work.
  • Distribute or publish the work.
  • Perform the work publicly.
  • Display the work publicly.

Copyright also provides the owner of copyright the right to authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights, subject to certain statutory limitations.

Copyright and Contracts Can Be Confusing!

What Constitutes Fair Use?

Copyrighted materials may be used without seeking permission from copyright holders if the use meets the requirements for fair use. To determine whether a use is fair use, several factors need to be considered (17 U.S.C. § 107):

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The following resources can help you decide whether your use of copyrighted material falls under fair use:

Your Rights as an Author

As soon as authors begin creating an original work in any fixed medium including electronic medium, the work is copyrighted and no other actions are necessary for it to be protected. Unfortunately, many publishers may require authors to sign away their rights to their work, as part of the standard publishing agreement.

Authors can avoid relinquishing the rights to their work in several ways:

Michael Carroll, from American University's Washington College of Law, explains how addenda can help modify publishing contracts to help authors keep the rights necessary to make their work available.

Useful Tools for Authors

Sherpa Romeo is an online resource that aggregates and presents publisher and journal open access policies from around the world. Every registered publisher or journal held in Romeo is carefully reviewed, analyzed, and accompanied by a summary of self-archiving permissions and conditions of rights given to authors.

"An author addendum is a proposed modification to a publisher's standard copyright transfer agreement. If accepted, it would allow the author to retain key rights, especially the right to authorize OA. Because an addendum is merely a proposed contract modification, a publisher may accept or reject it." (Simmons University)

The SPARC Author Addendum is a legal instrument that authors can use to modify their copyright transfer agreements with non-open access journal publishers.

Selected Readings