Barbara Opar and Barret Havens, column editors


October column prepared by Amy Vanderlyke Dygert, Esq., Director of Copyright Services, Cornell University


How can I retain the copyright in my publication?


This is an issue, which should be of prime importance to new as well as seasoned authors, including architecture faculty. However, many faculty, feeling tenure and promotion pressure, are willing to give up certain rights in order to have their work published.

But federal copyright law grants authors six exclusive rights relative to their work, including the rights to make and distribute copies of their work and to make derivative works based on their original scholarship. This exclusivity means that only the creator of the work is entitled to engage in those activities. Unfortunately, that exclusivity is often lost when authors, eager for publication, sign publishing agreements that unilaterally transfer copyright to the publisher. Many authors simply skim the boilerplate contracts without the specificity required to catch the copyright transfer.

Such consequences can be significant. At a minimum, authors may not be able to distribute copies of their work to students, colleagues, in course packs, or on their own websites. They may not be permitted to creative derivative works based on their original research and scholarship. Publishers can repackage or repurpose the scholarly works without attribution to the original author because they now legally own all rights in the work.

To prevent the loss of their scholarly work, authors should read all publishing agreements carefully before signing. Upon discovery of a copyright transfer or assignment clause, authors should negotiate with the publisher to retain their copyrights. Ideally, authors should explicitly retain all copyright ownership of their work. Publishers may pressure authors to transfer some rights, such as the right to reproduce and distribute, which are necessary to publish and distribute the journal and authors’ content therein. However, authors need not transfer these or any of their exclusive rights outright to achieve publication. They can instead grant an exclusive or nonexclusive license to the publisher. Granting such a license gives the publisher the right to engage in some of the authors’ exclusive copyrights, while simultaneously allowing the author to retain ultimate control over his or her work.

At present, a number of groups, including The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), are engaged in helping authors to understand and retain rights over their publications. SPARC is an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to create a more open system of scholarly communication. For more information about negotiating publishing agreements, as well as sample documents to convey particular rights, see The Author Addendum at