(#15) Copyright as the Center of the (Scholarly Communication) Universe

Whenever people think about Scholarly Communication, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not copyright.  They might think about the rising cost of journal subscriptions or new publishing methods or even think of putting their work on the web or in an institutional repository.  And while these are all valid first thoughts, copyright is generally only thought of after the fact.  Copyright should be a lot higher on the list for consideration.  Why?  Because copyright is the center of the scholarly communication universe!  And I’m not just saying that as the intellectual property librarian.  Ok, well maybe a little.  So, why is copyright so important in the scholarly communication universe?

Under US Copyright Law (US Code, Title 17), Section 106 grants authors certain exclusive rights as soon as they put their work into a fixed, tangible medium.  Sections 107 through 122 go about setting limitations on those exclusive rights, but for now, let’s just focus on the exclusive rights.  These rights include the ability to reproduce the copyrighted work, prepare derivative works, distribute the work, and display or perform the work publicly.  An author may share their work publicly on a web page or at a meeting or in any venue on their own as a means of spreading their work.  However, many authors want to publish their research or creative activity in a book or a journal in order to share their work.

For a publisher to make this work available, they must get permission from the author in order to reproduce (make copies) and distribute (in print or electronically) the author’s work as these are, up to this point, the exclusive rights belonging to the author.  This is where publishing agreements and copyright transfer agreements come in.  Some publishers have a policy in place that says that by sending them the article you are agreeing to have it published by them.  Thus, you are giving them permission.  Some publishers require not only permission, but an exclusive transfer of the copyright to them.  The transfer is exclusive in that the right was transferred and not retained by the author.  Exclusive transfers of copyright must be in writing, so this is why it is important to read the copyright transfer agreement carefully before you sign it.  Once an author exclusively transfers these rights, the author no longer has them.  This has many implications for the author and should be carefully considered.  For example, the author would generally no longer be able to reproduce or distribute their own paper without permission from the copyright owner (who is now the publisher) or by relying on another statute such as fair use.

There are arguments why an exclusive transfer is a good thing, and also arguments as to why they are a bad thing.  I’m not going there at the moment as this is a blog post and not a dissertation (although this is getting rather long).  Let’s suffice to say that ALL publishing requires at a minimum the permission of the original author.  This fact alone is why copyright plays such a central role in the way that scholars share their work from the publishing end of things.  Copyright plays important roles in other ways that scholars do their work, not just in publishing.  Think teaching, research, and other means of scholarly discourse.  I’ll be exploring these roles in a series of blog posts the first Monday of the month because copyright is just that important!  I hope you’ll join in the discussion.