What does it mean to hold the copyright to a manuscript or other printed material? During a panel discussion at the University of Washington entitled, “Publishing your work in the digital age,” Clark Shores, Assistant Attorney General of the state of Washington, answered questions about authors’ rights. According to Shores, “You own copyright to anything you write just as soon as it is created. You don’t have to do a thing to own this copyright.” Registering your copyright gives you added protections if a legal dispute arises. But even with that, owning a copyright and enforcing it are 2 different things. As I learned more about copyrights and authors’ rights, it became clear to me that it is a complex issue, especially in the digital age.
When authors submit a manuscript to the American Journal of Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics ( AJO-DO ), we ask them to transfer the copyright ownership to the American Association of Orthodontists. This request seems to be acceptable to most authors, and signing the copyright release is routine. The copyright transfer gives the AAO the exclusive right to publish the article in the AJO-DO . Elsevier manages the copyright process for us and automatically grants authors certain rights to their own work, including the right to post it on their own Web sites for exposure to students and those who listen to their scientific presentations. If you want to reuse a figure that has been published previously, Elsevier and most other publishers make it easy with an online permissions process, email@example.com .
But what if you want to retain more rights than Elsevier allows? For example, what if your funding requires “open source” distribution of your article? This means it must be sent to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within 12 months after the original publication date so that it can be posted on the NIH Web site and be made freely available to all readers. Doing this could require a change in the original copyright agreement. Is that possible? If so, how can you ensure that it will happen?
The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) was formed with this purpose in mind. SPARC, an international alliance of over 800 academic and research libraries, works toward a more open system of scholarly communication. It believes that, to achieve a more balanced approach to copyright management, authors should consider the following steps.
Read the publication’s copyright agreement with great care. It might capture more of your rights than are necessary to publish the work. Ensuring that the agreement is balanced and clearly states your rights is up to you.
Negotiate for the agreement you want. Publishing agreements are negotiable, and publishers might require only permission to publish an article, not wholesale transfer of copyright.
Value the copyright in your intellectual property. A journal article is often the culmination of years of study, research, and hard work. The more the article is read and cited, the greater its value. Before transferring ownership of your intellectual output, understand the consequences and options.
If you plan to submit your article to the NIH open-source Web site after its publication in the AJO-DO or any other journal, consider using the SPARC Author Addendum, available at www.arl.org/sparc/author . This is a legal instrument that modifies the copyright agreement and allows you to retain key rights to your articles. You can attach it to the standard copyright agreement that you include with your submission. The Web site is also a good source of information on SPARC’s education, advocacy, and publisher partner programs in North America, Europe, and Japan.
The issues of access to research findings and the rights of authors will continue to be of concern to authors and publishers as they seek to find the proper balance. There is every reason to believe that this balance can be achieved when both sides communicate their deepest concerns and listen to one another as changes continue in the publishing industry.
Note: nothing in this editorial is to be construed as legal advice. Each situation is different, and you should seek legal counsel before acting on any of this information or these recommendations.