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Owning and managing academic rights

This page focuses on issues for academic creators (especially authors).

Copyright Information Services can help with these issues - contact us with questions, or for training.

Authorship, ownership, and credit

As soon as anyone creates an expressive work, a copyright is automatically created as well. That copyright automatically belongs to someone - often the creator. Things like commissions to create a work, joint or collaborative authorship, or employment status can also affect who owns the copyright.

Usually, employers own works created by their employees, but in academic institutions, policies may change that. At the University of Minnesota, two policies control this - the Board of Regents policy, and the Administrative policy. These policies say that faculty own their academic works, employees with faculty-like jobs own their faculty-like work, and the work of employees in neither of those categories is owned by the University. University of Minnesota students also own the copyrights in their course work, assignments, and student scholarship.

For collaborative works that can’t be split into separately authored pieces, each co-author shares joint ownership of the entire work. Joint owners do have some limited legal responsibilities to each other, such as sharing profits. But each author can exercise any of the rights of the copyright owner and can transfer or license the work. As a practical matter co-authors should definitely check with and inform their co-authors of what they’re doing with shared works.

Copyright ownership is often completely unrelated to credit, citation, or attribution for a work. For example, it’s common that an author might not own the rights to a journal article, but they are still the author. Academic disciplines have strict rules about who is listed as an author, and how authors are cited. These rules, and how research impact is measured, vary widely between disciplines; the Libraries have expert staff members who can help explore citation and research impacts.

Registration is not necessary for ownership of a copyright, but some publishers suggest it’s a benefit they offer to authors.

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Rights are essential for researchers and scholars

When an author own the rights in their work, they can decide how their work is used and shared. They can use their rights to expand access to their work, and that can increase the reach and impact of their research. They can distribute works to students in their own courses, or allow colleagues to make copies for students. And they can reuse their existing works in the future without any barriers. 

For student authors, rights affect the ability to reuse publications as chapters in a dissertation or thesis, and can affect the ability to adapt a work for future monograph publications.

Academic publishers often ask authors to transfer copyrights to the publisher, or give the publisher an “exclusive license” (which is often similar to a full-scale transfer.) If an author transfers the copyright, the publisher becomes the copyright owner, and the author no longer has control of how their work is distributed or used. 

Some publishers suggest that they provide a benefit by registering or defending copyrights for authors. If an author has given up rights to the work, the publisher is the owner, and will register and defend the work as their own. 

Publishers do need some rights to publish and distribute works. They often ask for all rights, but there’s no reason they can’t split rights, or share rights with authors - that is the more common approach in commercial publishing. Authors should think about which rights are truly necessary to the publisher and which rights the author might want to retain. 

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Ignoring rights can lead to surprises

Many academic authors publish without paying much attention to publisher policies or the terms of their publication agreements. These authors use their works in the ways that seem good to them and don’t check their rights, and often they don’t encounter any problems. 

But when problems do come up, they can be big surprises for authors. By keeping rights that are important to them, authors can have more control over their work, and avoid some of these problems. 

Authors often share their works online on academic social media sites like ResearchGate and Academia.edu, or on institutional or disciplinary repositories such as the NIH's PubMed Central and the arXiv for physics and other sciences. Some publishers allow sharing on these sites, but they may allow sharing only of the manuscript or earlier versions, or after a significant time delay (often 12-48 months.) 

Some publishers don’t formally allow this kind of sharing, but often look the other way when authors share anyway. But when a publisher owns the copyright to an article, they can have the article removed from these sites - which they also do fairly frequently. 

Authors also sometimes share their works on more local websites, or in password-protected folders. If the authors don’t own the copyright in their works, they don’t have any more rights than anyone else to share them online. There have been lawsuits from academic publishers about materials shared behind campus password logins.

Authors have also sometimes been surprised when a book publisher re-issues a new edition of a book without the input of the author of the last edition - which the publisher can do if they own the book’s copyright. And authors who want to reuse images or figures from past publications have often been quoted prices in the hundreds of dollars to reuse them in future publications. 

Occasionally, a student may plan to include previously published articles as chapters in a dissertation or thesis. Many publishers have policies (written or unwritten) that allow dissertation re-use, but some do not grant permission for that, or grant complicated permissions. Retaining rights or checking policies before publication can help student authors avoid problems completing their degree.

For a different perspective on these issues, "Publish AND Perish? Protecting your copyrights from your publisher" recounts a conversation between a professor of comparative literature at UCLA and his son, a copyright lawyer. It's an entertaining introduction to the ideas of managing copyrights, and how authors and publishers may not always have the same interests.

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Publisher policies and standard agreements

Many academic publishers have standard agreements or policies that allow authors to keep or share most of their rights. Some require authors to give up their rights, but still have policies of allowing certain kinds of sharing or reuse. 

The author's agreement or a summary of the publisher's policies is often available on the publisher's web site or the web site for the journal (look for a section of information for authors. If it's not available there, you can contact the editors or publisher directly.

You can also look up publishers’ policies and standard agreements on the Sherpa Romeo.  They give a quick summary of many publishers' open access options, and publishers’ policies on posting (or "archiving") articles online in research repository sites, personal websites, and academic social media.

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Moving past standard agreements

Authors can propose changes to a publisher’s standard agreement with the publisher. Negotiating about details of the agreement can help authors keep rights in their work. We have not heard of any publisher refusing to publish an article just because the author asked for changes in their agreement. 

Authors can propose changes by contacting an editor for a conversation, or an author can just edit the standard agreement before sending it back. Authors should be careful not to click "I agree" or otherwise submit an online version of a publication agreement if you want to make any changes. The changes must be made before anyone agrees! 

Another way to propose changes is to use an “author's addendum” to a publication agreement. An addendum is a standard form contract that authors can use to respond to the standard form contract that the publisher uses. An addendum can help to open a discussion about rights in a work, even if a publisher does not immediately accept it.

To use an addendum, edit or write on your publisher agreement to say that it is "subject to attached amendment", fill out the addendum of your choice, and sign and submit both to your publisher.

The University of Minnesota Senate reviewed and endorsed the Author's Addendum developed by the CIC (Big Ten) in 2007. The BTAA is the successor organization to the CIC, and the current BTAA Author's Addendum contains nearly identical provisions as that endorsed in 2007. By submitting the Addendumwith the publisher's standard agreement, U of MN authors can retain their rights to use their own articles in their teaching and other professional activities, to post their articles on their web sites or on those maintained by the U of MN / scholarly societies / funding agencies (6 months after the date of publication), and to grant the U of MN the right to distribute their articles for teaching and research purposes

Another addendum option is the version developed by SPARC, an advocacy group for open research and education. The SPARC addendum has options for US or Canadian authors.

If the publisher will not change their agreement, or says they will not accept an addendum, authors still have a choice about whether to go ahead with the publication, or look at publishing in another venue with policies you prefer. 

For more negotiating tips, see How to Retain Ownership of Your Copyright when Dealing with Publishers (A Very Short Guide to Negotiation), from Arizona State University or Author Rights: Using the SPARC Author Addendum from SPARC. You can also always contact copyinfo@umn.edu.

For articles only, the UMN "Open Access to Scholarly Articles" policy can also provide options for enabling access to your scholarship. The Libraries have more detailed information about the policy.

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Federal research funding, federal employee authors

Federal funding doesn’t usually affect who owns the copyright in a scholarly work when it is created. But federal funders often require public access to published research from their grants. A publisher's standard contract and policies may allow for the kinds of sharing required by a grant. If it does not, authors have to negotiate to retain the rights needed to comply with their grant requirements. The Libraries maintain a summary of federal and other funder public-access requirements.

When an author is working as an employee of a United States federal government agency or organization, there is no copyright in the work that they produce. (17 USC §105.) All United States government works are in the public domain in the US. Federal employee authors can’t sign standard copyright transfer or license agreements, because there is no copyright to transfer or license. But most publishers have special forms for federal government authors.

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Sharing your work through the UMN Libraries

UMN authors who have the rights to do so can share their works in the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy. This provides long-term preservation and access services for the intellectual and creative output of the University's academic, research, and administrative communities. Posting a work in the Conservancy can also increase its visibility in search results.

All authors retain copyright to their Conservancy submissions and are free to reuse their works elsewhere. Contributing works to the Conservancy does not transfer intellectual property rights. The UDC's Copyright Policy and Deposit Agreements information has more details. 

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Dissertations and theses

Student authors own the copyright in their dissertations and theses. Unless an advisor materially contributes significant content to a dissertation or thesis, the advisor does not usually own any of the copyright in the work. While advisors often guide the research and writing process, and  may help to shape ideas within a dissertation or thesis, ideas are not part of a copyright; the copyright comes from the student author’s writing, which the student author owns. 

UMN dissertations and most theses are shared through the University Digital Conservancy. The copy in the Conservancy is the public copy of record, as required for graduation. Dissertations and theses are also submitted through Proquest - which got its start providing microfilm access to paper theses. Authors do not transfer or lose the copyright in their thesis or dissertation when submitting it, either to Proquest or to the University Digital Conservancy.

Proquest provides an option for authors to have Proquest register the copyright in their dissertation or thesis. This is simple and convenient, but entirely optional.  It may also be cheaper for authors to register their works themselves at the Copyright Office.

Authors getting ready to submit a dissertation or thesis should also think about some other serious issues. Submission is usually considered publication, which could be problematic if your work contains sensitive data, potentially patentable inventions, is in its current form a candidate for commercial publication, or contains the work of collaborators who may also hold a copyright interest. A lot of these problems can be avoided through the Graduate School options for placing an embargo (or hold) on public distribution. 

More information:

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Other graduate and undergraduate student works

Students own copyrights in the works that they create, even for class assignments. A student may be required to share their work in certain contexts (e.g., submitting copies to instructors, presenting in class, etc.) as a condition of participation in a course (see the relevant University policy), but no one, including instructors, has a blanket right to reuse student works without their permission. Student works should be treated with the same respect shown to works by other authors.

Students do not usually own a copyright in recordings of class sessions, or in notes that closely resemble a transcription of the class session or information presented in readings or other course materials. These are derivative works based on the material presented by instructors, or on the course materials. Students may possibly own a partial copyright in notes where the student has made significant original creative contributions. Regardless of specifics of ownership, University policy states that students may not share these materials publicly without the permission of the instructor.

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