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Authors' Rights

As an author, you hold exclusive copyright to your original work from the very moment the work is created. The law clearly states that the moment a work is fixed in tangible form it is protected by copyright. At this point, you have complete legal authority over how the item may be used and shared. According to Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act, you have the exclusive right to

  • Reproduce the work

  • Prepare derivative works based upon the original work

  • Distribute copies of the work

  • Perform the work publicly

  • Display the work publicly

These rights belong to you until you decide to transfer them to another party. Most frequently, this transfer happens when you sign a contract with a publisher for the commercial publication of your original work. Once copyright is transferred, you no longer the exclusive holder of the rights mentioned above. The contract you sign with your publisher may allow you to retain some limited non-exclusive rights, or it may remove all rights from you and place them squarely in the hands of the publisher.

What many authors do not understand, however, is that it is not necessary to sign away all of your rights as an author in order to have something published. The traditional publishing model typically transfers all rights to the publisher, but there are ways to preserve the rights you need and deserve as the original creator of the work and to honor the publisher’s desire to use your document in its publication/for commercial reasons. You have options when it comes to publishing your work.

So What Are Your Options?

Here are options available to you as you seek to publish your work:

  • Accept the publisher's contract -- If your work is accepted for publication and the contract provided by the publisher is agreeable to you, simply accept the terms laid out in the contract.
  • Negotiate with the publisher -- If some of the publisher's contract is acceptable but some things in it are not, you can negotiate in an attempt to have the unacceptable points modified or removed. In essence, you will be working with the publisher to create a new contract that is agreeable to both of you.
  • Add an author's addendum to the publisher's contract -- An addendum is used to ensure that you will retain certain rights to the material you created. Examples of addendums can be found here and here.
  • Publish your work in an open access journal -- Many Open Access journals are peer-reviewed and have excellent impact factors. Their content is free of charge to the user and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.
  • Archive your work in an institutional repository -- Institutional repositories are collections of academic works created by the individuals affiliated with a particular university. Most repositories are indexed by Google and other search engines, making their content very discoverable, and authors typically retain all rights to their work. For information on CMU's Digital Collections, click her​e.
  • Self publish -- You are always free to make your work available on your own terms, through posting on a personal web site, for example.

For More Information

Author Rights -- A helpful page explaining the SPARC Author Addendum to retain your rights as an author. -- Sponsored by Columbia University, this site provides information on your rights as a creator and why you may want to hold onto them.

Managing Your Copyrights -- Copyright expert Ken Crews talks about authors' rights in this very informative short video.

For Faculty Authors -- The Duke University Libraries' site for faculty authors.

Scholarly Communication/Author Rights -- A very nice page from the Arizona State University Libraries about author rights.

An Introduction to Publication Agreements for Authors -- This short article talks about your copyrights and the advantage of retaining those rights.

Sherpa/RoMEO -- Use this site to determine which permissions are typically granted as part of a publisher's copyright transfer agreement.

Understanding Open Access: When, Why, and How to Make Your Work Openly Accessible

Creative Commons -- Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that promotes open access to and the sharing of creative work. Works licensed through Creative Commons have fewer usage restrictions than traditionally copyrighted works.