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Copyright: Authors (Scholarly Communication)

This guide provides information (not legal advice) to support NWC community decision-making in the use of copyright protected material in research, learning, and teaching.

Purpose of Guide and Disclaimer

This guide intends to refer NWC community users to accurate information. However, information received from the NWC Library or the NWC Copyright Librarian is neither legal advice/opinion nor legal counsel to the college or any members of the NWC community. Please contact the NWC Office of General Counsel or NWC Staff Judge Advocate's Office for NWC-related legal advice and interpretation of the law, or personal counsel for personal legal advice. The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by NWC of sites or the information, products, or services contained therein, nor does NWC exercise editorial control over the information found at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this guide. U.S. copyright law is subject to change.

Author Rights

For the purposes of copyright law, an author is anyone who creates original expression in a fixed medium, like a book, journal article, computer software, photograph, artwork or many other creative works. The creator of the expression is the Author and holds the copyright from the moment of creation.

As the Author of a work you are the copyright holder for the duration of the copyright term unless and until you transfer the copyright to someone else in a signed agreement.

Authors can also assign an open license to the work. For example, a Creative Commons license provides a “some rights reserved” option for copyright owners who want to let others use their works under certain conditions. Creative Commons licenses help content creators share their work more freely than copyright law allows. 

Copyright is a bundle of exclusive rights of the Author or copyright holder defined in 17 U.S.C. § 106:  

To Reproduce The reproduction right is the right to make copies of a protected work (for example, photocopies or online).
To Distribute The distribution right is the right to sell or distribute copies of the work to the public.
Prepare Derivative Works or Adaptations The right to create adaptations (also called derivative works including translations) or the right to prepare new works based on the protected work.
Display or Perform the Work Publicly The rights to perform a protected work (such as a stage play) or to display a work in public.
Authorize Others to Exercise Any of These Rights This bundle of rights allows a copyright owner to be flexible when deciding how to realize commercial gain from the underlying work; the owner may sell or license any of the rights.

Note: Authors are typically asked to sign legally binding contracts such as a publication agreement or a copyright transfer agreement (both legally binding contracts) that can transfer ownership of copyright to the publisher who then determines how an Author may use their own work. By transferring rights to a publisher, an Author will lose some or all of the above exclusive rights of copyright.

Authors who sign away all rights may utilize their work if their use fits under the fair use provision in copyright law, just like any other user.

Remember that users have exemptions built into copyright law that allow them within certain limits to use copyrighted works without permission from the author/rightsholder. Under the limits of each exemption, users are permitted to exercise some of the exclusive rights above including reproduction, distribution, display and performance.

For more information please see:

How do I get my work copyrighted?

A copyrighted work must be an original work of authorship that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright is automatic, at the moment of fixation, for works produced on or after Jan. 1, 1978. Copyright registration and a copyright notice (such as © 2022 Rights Holder) is no longer required. However, a copyright notice does tell the world that you do not want your work to be used without permission. Copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is required before filing suit in federal court for copyright infringement.

How do I register my copyright?

A rights holder can register a copyright at any time while the copyright is in force. To do so, you need to fill out forms at the U.S. Copyright Office's website and pay a fee. It is also possible to preregister a copyright for certain types of work. Read more about registering your copyright from the Authors Alliance two-part blog series “Why Register Your Copyright” (2018) and “How To Register Your Copyright” (2018).

What can I do with my own copyrighted works?

As a copyright owner you have the ability to decide who may use your work and under what conditions. You have the right to transfer your copyright ownership to another in whole or in part, or you may retain your ownership and simply grant another person permission to use your work. If you are granting another permission to use your work, you are granting a license and that license may be exclusive or non-exclusive. Depending on the extent of rights you would like to retain, there are a number of models you may choose.

Please keep in mind that users will be able to use copyright exceptions such as fair use on your work without your permission. These exceptions are built into copyright law to maintain a balance between creators and users.

How do I grant permission to others?

If a party wishes to use your work and your work does not fall within the public domain and their own use does not fall under fair use or another exception, they must seek your permission. Attaching copyright notices, terms of use, or permission statements to your work can make it easier for individuals wanting to seek your permission to find you or know in advance what they may do with your work. A grant of permission (license) may be exclusive or non-exclusive. To grant an exclusive license, or to transfer your ownership of the copyright to another, you must have a signed, written agreement. 

Please see the Creatives Commons page for an open licensing option.

How do I protect my rights as an author?

Explicitly retain ownership of your content or transfer only some of your rights to the publisher. Consider open licensing like Creative Commons. For more details on contract clauses (creator-friendly, creator-unfriendly, and overreaching), please visit Columbia University's Kernochan Center's About Contracts site.

What rights can I retain?

You can retain any or all of the five exclusive rights of copyright (reproduction, distribution, performance, display, and derivative works). When considering publication, it is often desirable to at least retain rights in connection with any personal, professional or non-profit educational activities.

How can I retain my rights?

Only sign a publishing agreement after you read and understand the content. Talk to your publisher about granting only those rights needed for their publication. Try to keep all other rights, specifying those of particular value to you or your institution. See the resource below for examples of words and phrases to look for in your agreements.

Please also visit MIT's Retaining Rights page for authors.

Can I ever get my rights back?

Depending on when your publishing contract was written, it may be possible to consider rights reversion. When certain conditions are met, authors can work with their publishers to regain some or all of the rights in their work, according a to a contractual provision called a "right of reversion." The Authors Alliance has published Understanding Rights Reversion: When, Why, & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available (2015), an open resource which aims to educate authors about rights reversion and strategies for taking advantage of this opportunity. Also check out their resource on how to craft a rights reversion letter to your publisher, which includes a template and sample language.

"Termination of transfer" laws enable authors to regain rights in works they may have signed away. Many publishing agreements last for the duration of the copyright term but the "termination of transfer" laws were written to protect authors and creators from unfair publishing terms, and help them recapture financial incentives from their creative works. The law requires that authors wait at least 35 years to exercise this right. Review the "Termination of Transfer" resource (2017) from the Authors Alliance for information and templates and the interactive "Termination of Transfer" Tool (2017) from the Authors Alliance and Creative Commons. They also provide an FAQ about "termination of transfer."

What are copyright instructions within the Navy?

Publication Agreements

A balanced publishing approach between authors and publishers may include the following:

Authors Publishers

Retain the rights you want

Use and develop your own work without restriction

Increase access for education and research

Receive proper attribution when your work is used

If you choose, deposit your work in an open online archive where it will be permanently and openly accessible

Obtain a non-exclusive right to publish and distribute a work and receive a financial return

Receive proper attribution and citation as journal of first publication

Migrate the work to future formats and include it in collections

Publication agreements are negotiable.

Read the publication agreement with great care. Publishers’ agreements (often titled a “Copyright Transfer Agreement”) have traditionally been used to transfer copyright or key use rights from author to publisher. They are written by publishers and may capture more of your rights than are necessary to publish the work. Ensuring the agreement is balanced and has a clear statement of your rights is up to you before you sign.

Publishers require only your permission to publish an article, not a wholesale transfer of copyright. Hold onto rights to make use of the work in ways that serve your needs and that promote education and research activities.

More options are available today; you as an author have options that were not available in the past.  Before signing a publisher's agreement, read it closely to see what rights the publisher wants from you. In some cases, they will simply ask for the right to publish your work first. They may, for example, offer you the right to make copies or create derivative works. Read the agreement very closely before signing. If you have questions, consult personal counsel.

  • For more details on contract clauses (creator-friendly, creator-unfriendly, and overreaching), please visit Columbia University's Kernochan Center's About Contracts site.

As the Author of a work, you are the copyright holder unless and until you transfer the copyright to someone else in a signed agreement.

Authors are typically asked to sign legally binding contracts such as a publication agreement or a copyright transfer agreement (both legally binding contracts) that usually transfer copyright ownership to the publisher who then determines how the Author may use or not use their own work. The agreements are written by publishers and may capture more of an Author's exclusive rights than are necessary to publish the work. Ensuring the agreement is balanced and has a clear statement of rights is up to the Author before they sign.

What happens when I sign a publisher's agreement?

Authors should be aware that they may be relinquishing their exclusive rights of copyright in works they have produced and own when they sign agreements with publishers or other companies. In some cases, this can include giving up the right to use the work in their own or institutional educational and research endeavors.

Only sign a publishing agreement after you read and understand the content. Then, talk to your publisher about granting them only those rights needed for publication.

Authors who sign away all rights must request permission (often with a fee) to use their work:

  • on a personal website
  • in a course pack for a class they are teaching 
  • in a public online archive or an institutional repository
  • to distribute copies to their class or to colleagues
  • in later works
  • in an anthology

Transferring copyright does not need to be an all or nothing proposition.  

The law allows you to transfer copyright while retaining rights for yourself and others. Authors can unbundle the rights within the copyright bundle and transfer only some of them to publishers. 

"When a copyright owner wishes to commercially exploit the work covered by the copyright, the owner typically transfers one or more of these rights to the person or entity who will be responsible for getting the work to market, such as a book or software publisher. It is also common for the copyright owner to place some limitations on the exclusive rights being transferred" (Stanford's Guide Copyright Ownership: Who Owns What?).

For example:

  • Transfer publishing rights but retain the right to do certain things like include articles in academic course packs or place articles on a personal website or in an institutional repository.
  • Retain ownership of the copyright but grant a non-exclusive license to the publisher, typically for the right of first formal publication.

If the publisher’s standard agreement does not give you the control you want, suggest changes by using an addendum.

Some options to consider include the following:

  • Attach an Author Addendum to the publisher's agreement to retain some rights.
  • Simply cross out and write in changes on the actual publisher's agreement before signing.
  • Publish your work as an Open Access work.
    • Choose a publisher that offers this option.
    • Check Sherpa/RoMEO to see if your publisher will allow you to deposit your manuscript in an Open Access repository.
  • Post your work to the web and license it with a Creative Commons license.
    • With a Creative Commons license, you keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work provided they give you credit and only on the conditions you specify in your license.
  • Many publishers currently offer the option to post a version of your manuscript in an institutional repository.  Depending upon the publisher's current policy, you may be able to post previously published articles, too. 
    • Remember to check the publisher site for clarification and updates.

Copyright law permits authors to reclaim their copyrights for works assigned to another entity (like a publisher) in 1978 or later, during a five year window that opens 35 years after the date of the original assignment (transfer) of these rights (17 U.S.C. § 203). The author must file a notice in advance to the assignee between two and five years before the termination itself. Reclaiming copyright allows the author to make new publishing arrangements (including making the work openly available on the web). If the author has died, their heirs have the right to terminate and recover ownership over the rights. Please read the U.S. Copyright Office's summary for more information.

If the assignment was before 1978, termination rules are found in 17 U.S.C. § 304. This statute states the author, or if they have died, their heirs, has the right to terminate at any time during a five year window that opens from the date copyright was originally secured, or beginning on January 1, 1978, whichever is later. If that window is missed, another one opens up 75 years after the original publication date. This termination statute also has an advanced notice to assignee requirement. All terms of copyright provided by §§ 302-304 run to the end of the calendar year in which they would otherwise expire.

To determine if you as an author can reclaim your copyright, please use the Authors Alliance/Creative Commons Termination of Transfer Tool. For more details, please read “Reclaiming Your Copyright.” 

*Note: Works for Hire are not subject to these termination rules.

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