Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, October 26, 2007

Why publishers want authors to transfer full copyright

The International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM) has released a new position paper, Publishers Seek Copyright Transfers (Or Transfers Or Licenses Of Exclusive Rights) To Ensure Proper Administration & Enforcement Of Author Rights, October 2007.  It's one page long.  Excerpt:

...In general, publishers in the field of science, technology and medicine (STM) prefer assignments [granting publishers full copyright] over licences [granting publishers selected rights], mainly because:

  • authors are rarely in a position to defend themselves against infringers, plagiarists, pirates and free-riders, partly due to financial considerations;
  • authors, users, science and the public benefit from the broadest possible dissemination. Assignments facilitate efficient dissemination handled by a specialised distribution professional: the publisher; ...

Thus, an assignment enables the publisher:

  • to manage copyrights more effectively - how many authors would be willing and able to grant permission to third parties willing to use excerpts, find sub-agents, correspond with their coauthors or exploit rights that are “held back” under an exclusive licence?
  • to react more rapidly to copyright infringements, unauthorised derivatives and plagiarism;
  • to move a publication safely to new formats and invest in future publication platforms. There is no danger of having to leave an individual articles behind, as would be the case where rights limited to old technologies or obsolete formats are granted; ...

An assignment does not preclude:

  • the author and publisher from agreeing contractually to keep certain rights, eg the right to publish a version of the manuscript on the author’s website; ...


  • Publishers don't need full copyright to defend authors from plagiarists.  I've addressed this one before:  "First, the rights are rarely used this way.  Plagiarism is typically punished by the plagiarist's institution, not by courts --i.e. by social norms, not by law.  Second, if it's ever desirable to pursue a plagiarist in court and authors don't give publishers the right to do so on their own, then authors retain that right to use as they see fit.  Third, many authors would rather have a larger audience and impact than give their publisher the seldom-used legal tools to prosecute plagiarists.  Authors should make this decision, not publishers.  Finally, if an author discovers a plagiarist and the publisher really wants to get involved, the author can always delegate the publisher to act as his/her agent.  For this purpose, publishers do not need rights from the time of publication, nor do they need exclusive rights, let alone a policy to limit access to the author's work."
  • It's very true that "authors, users, science and the public benefit from the broadest possible dissemination."  But transferring full copyright to a publisher makes this important outcome less likely, not more likely.  It gives the access decision to the publisher, who will usually hide the work behind a price barrier and limit the audience to paying customers.
  • It's true that we must facilitate permissions for those who want to quote excerpts that exceed fair use, migrate the content to new media and formats, and so on.  It's also true that it's easier to ask one publisher than hundreds of authors.  But it's even easier not to ask at all.  The best solution is open access that permits all of these uses in advance so that no one ever has to ask permission. 
  • Although the document is short, it could be a lot shorter.  For toll access documents, full copyright helps the publisher protect its revenue.  For open access documents, publishers simply do not need full copyright.  The interests of authors are best served by open access, and harmed by toll access.  Publishers who want full copyright want to protect their own interests, not the interests of authors. 
  • Just for completeness:  authors don't need to retain full copyright to make OA possible.  They only need to retain the right to make an OA copy available from an OA repository.  Since the STM position paper acknowledges that (some version) of that right is compatible with full transfer of copyright to publishers, we might hope to find a win-win compromise giving each side all it needs.  For my pessimistic assessment of that possibility, looking at the STM's previous effort (May 2007) to balance author and publisher rights, see my article in SOAN for June 2007.