Protect Your Copyright

      10 Comments on Protect Your Copyright

By Adam Crymble

Keep it, sell it or release it to everyone?

Copyright isn’t a topic of which many young academics have a strong understanding. But, as a writer, it’s something to which you should pay attention. And you shouldn’t be afraid to assert your rights when it comes to assigning copyright when you publish.

Your copyright is your ownership over the fruits of your labour. You did the research and the writing, so you have a right to benefit from that writing. Copyright is the only thing that legally protects you from people who want to steal your work and make money from it.

The catch is, it only works if you don’t give it away carelessly.

When you publish something, the editor of the publication has to obtain your permission, and you can count on each publication having a set of rights that they require you to sign over in return for publishing your work. There are thousands of combinations of rights publishers can and will ask for. Here I’ve put together the four most common types: Publication Rights, Grant of Rights in Exchange for Compensation, Pressure to Relinquish Rights, and Releasing Rights.


First worldwide publication rights including in translation, and the rights to reproduce, transmit, distribute and translate in whole or in part, on magnetic, optical or any other form of electronic media or transmission, whether now in existence or developed in the future, including electronic transmission to on-line terminals and computer networks for searching, displaying and printing.

These are the rights University Affairs magazine asked for when commissioning an article from me this past spring. In exchange for these rights, they wrote me a cheque. I still own the piece of writing, which means I can hand out copies of it to my students as long as I let University Affairs publish it first. They can republish it as many times as they like, in as many formats as they like. This agreement protects the publisher’s ability to make money from my article in exchange for the money they paid me.

Another article I wrote last year for a different publication had more stringent rights:


Work-made-for-hire: Writer acknowledges that the Work has been commissioned by the Publisher as a contribution to a collective work and that it shall be deemed a work-made-for-hire under U.S. copyright law. Against the possibility that the Work might be deemed, for any reason, incapable as a matter of law of characterization as work-made-for-hire, Writer hereby assigns to Publisher all right, title, and interest in and to the Work, including without limitation all copyrights throughout the world.

This time, the publisher wanted to purchase all forms of copyright related to the article. Unlike the article for University Affairs, which I still technically own, another publisher now owns this, and I would have to obtain permission to reproduce it, as would anyone else. For these rights, I was again sent a cheque. In essence, I sold my rights to the work in the same manner a farmer sells his eggs and gives up any right to eat them afterwards. Even though it’s not as liberal as the deal with University Affairs, I was still fairly compensated.

A third model many small publishers attempt to use is as follows:


Once the editor has decided to publish your piece, the article may not be published in another publication without our express consent. Once articles are submitted, the rights belong to the publication.


In exchange for giving away your rights entirely, these publishers will give you a variety of benefits, including “seeing your work published” or “a chance to win a prize in our annual draw” or even “a share of advertising revenue” which by the end of ten years may be worth upwards of 25 cents. If they’re an academic journal, they dangle the “line on your C.V.” in front of you.

These are the publishers you need to watch out for. Unlike more established publications, they don’t make enough money from subscriptions or advertising to stay afloat, so they can’t pay you for the rights they demand. They want to make money from your labour without giving you a tangible return on your efforts.

If you see this on a website or from a magazine publisher, either negotiate the copyright, or run away. Most editors should be completely satisfied with the promise of “First worldwide publication rights” that lets them publish it first and reap the rewards of any buzz the article creates. If they aren’t happy with that, they’ve got ulterior motives and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask why they don’t want you to be able to reproduce your own work in exchange for nothing.

I’d suggest you should also be wary of academic journals who demand full rights to your work. Academic journals are vehicles for disseminating academic knowledge. For a journal to require you to transfer ownership of the work to them, thereby preventing you free access to further disseminate the work is against the best interests of you and of those who could benefit from your knowledge who may not have access to the journal. In this case, the fourth option may be the best:


Author hereby releases this article under an “Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported” license.

The fourth model, and the perhaps best suited to academia, is to release the rights under a Creative Commons License.  There are several different Creative Commons licenses, which provide flexible solutions to granting various rights, while protecting others. You can read more on the various option on the Creative Commons website, but to get you started, you might consider an “Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported” license.

This license lets anyone publish your work anywhere in the world (UNPORTED), as long as they don’t make changes to it (NO DERIVATIVES) and they attribute the work in the manner specified by you, but not in any way that suggests that you endorse them or their use of your work. (ATTRIBUTION)

If you are dealing with a non-commercial publication such as a not-for-profit journal or website, you could change your license to an “Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported” which would disallow use by anyone out to make money.

The advantage of a Creative Commons license is that everyone knows how the work can be used without having to track you down and ask you directly. As the original creator, you will always have the right to republish or change the work, and your publisher can negotiate terms, which allow them to achieve all their publishing needs without taking anything from you.

Take some time to learn about the various copyright options out there. And don’t be afraid to assert yourself. Publishers need writers just as much as writers need publishers. Don’t be taken advantage of. And if you’re going to give your work away, make sure the cheque’s in the mail; if it’s not, give the work to everyone.

Creative Commons License
Protect Your Copyright by Adam Crymble is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

10 thoughts on “Protect Your Copyright

  1. Ian Milligan

    Fascinating post, Adam, and a critically important topic.

    On the topic of academic journals, however, you’ve opened up a complicated door. After an article has been submitted to a journal, the resulting product is very much a collaboration between the author, several anonymous peer-reviewers, and an editorial team. All of this labour is generally unpaid, although larger journals do have a paid administrative staff to help the gears grind away. The peer review process gives a barrel of free feedback, and usually helps speak to broader projects as well.

    The model that I think is most fair, given the risk that the journal may have taken on the submission, and the model of publishing recognition that we have in place, is that the journal subsequently has the right to at least ensure that an acknowledgement is placed on any subsequent reappearances. For a journal like Left History, we – as far as I know – are always happy to grant republishing rights as long as proper acknowledgement takes place. Also, everything becomes accessible to the public for free after two years. If we didn’t have these sorts of things in order, institutions would stop subscribing to the journal – and institutional subscriptions keep these things afloat.

    In an ideal world, academic journals could pay their contributors much like University Affairs. This would require far higher subscription costs and would probably lead to a massive consolidation in the Canadian history journal realm. The merits of that aside, which probably will have to be discussed at some point, it’s a tricky realm.

    Anyways, just my few musings. Again, this is crucially important stuff that you’re writing on.

  2. Matthew Hayday

    As Ian said, this is really a crucial issue that we don’t pay nearly enough attention to as authors. I’ve been spending the last few months securing reprinting rights for an edited collection, and what I’ve been finding is that most authors don’t know who holds the copyright to their work, or they assume that they hold it, when in fact it is held by the journal or book publisher.

    Many of these journals and presses are great, allowing the work to be reprinted with only an acknowledgement of the original source, or a very modest fee. But in other cases I’ve been shocked at what the various presses (or their agents) will charge to reprint scholarly articles, with the fees not going to the author. The Canadian ones are generally pretty good (and I’m working with a Canadian press), but the British and US presses can charge very steep fees – automatic quotes from Taylor & Francis, for example, routinely run in the $750-$1000 range to reprint a single article, published a decade ago, in a book with a low print run.

    On the other hand, the pressure to publish is intense, and if you’re an author without a tenure-track job, it’s hard not to bend to the pressure to accept the demands of the press.

  3. Adam Crymble

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for the comment. It’s good to get another perspective. I agree it’s fair of a journal to ask for attribution when republishing and the peer review process is certainly important for improving the quality of work that goes through the system. But, I’m not convinced there isn’t a better model for publishing sells “peer review” rather than publication.

    Reviewers and editors generally aren’t paid for their work, so there is no direct cost associated with peer reviewing. There may be some copy editing costs, as well as printing and web editing. There’s also possibly the salary of the subscription and adverting salesperson to pay for. As far as I’m concerned, the printing and the salesperson can go. There’s no reason people who want a paper copy of an article can’t print it on their own machine.

    The copyeditor and web editor could and should work for a conglomerate of publications at the same time. For a little over $100k per year, these two employees could run tens of journals by editing and posting material that has been peer reviewed by the various editorial boards.

    If academic journals are asking for copyright so that they can continue to ask for individual subscription fees, we as authors must ask, what are you spending your money on and why do we need it done so? At least in Canada, those individual subscriptions come primarily from tax payers. So in stead of asking the Canadian people to pay for twenty subscriptions each for twenty journals, why not pay two salaries (a copy editor and a web editor) and release the information to everyone?

    We can’t let a lack of innovation stifle the industry, and we can’t keep asking writers to give up their rights to benefit a creaky machine in need of being rebuilt.

  4. Sean Kheraj

    This is a terrific guide, Adam. Thanks for posting this.

    As you already know, this is a topic I’ve been interested in a for a while now. I will only add a couple of points to the conversation:

    1.) I can understand the position of a journal like Left History and the fear of losing institutional subscriptions, but I wonder if the two-year open-access waiting period does more harm than good. For a smaller journal, obscurity is a greater threat to institutional subscriptions than openness. Academic journals gain value through impact, not through scarcity. The only way to elevate the impact of an academic journal is to is to make it widely available.

    With the trend toward open-access publishing models for scholarly communication, we are likely to see more researchers avoid publishing in journals that maintain restrictive distribution policies. As Adam correctly points out, barriers and limits to access scholarly knowledge work against the interests of academics. But as Matthew also rightly reminds us, junior scholars are often under greater pressure to publish and thus may continue to give away their copyright in exchange for that first journal publication.

    2.) For those who missed it, Lawrence Lessig recently wrote an article on The Huffington Post, clarifying some misunderstandings about the Creative Commons licensing system. Adam makes this clear in his article as well, but Lessig’s argument is that Creative Commons is not “anti-copyright”. It is an intellectual property licensing system based on copyright.

    3.) Finally, I just want to remind other readers that intellectual property rights are not synonymous with property rights. Under the law, these are two very different things. I get concerned when the term “theft” is used in reference to copyright and analogies to property rights are used to explain copyright. The farmer selling his eggs is a matter of property rights. The farmer selling his ideas about raising chickens and harvesting eggs is a matter of intellectual property rights. There are many important differences between the two.

  5. Ian Milligan

    Hi Adam,

    Unfortunately, we’d need a massive shift towards seeing e-journals (that have no print counterpart) as just as legitimate as regular journals. I don’t think the profession is there yet, unfortunately, although I’m sure things will have to change in the near future – probably quicker than we think.

    As for the monetary model, journals are expensive. I can only speak for Left History, which has no paid staff whatsoever – relying completely on volunteers – and which relies of the generous assistance of several subsidizers (esp. the Department of History at York, to give another kudos to them) to keep going even with subscription fees. Printing is a cost, but so are all sorts of hidden costs. To send out a hardcover book or two to a reviewer in the states often runs above $10 or even $15 a pop, and that’s just for one book. Envelopes, stationary, etc. all runs high. If a computer or a publishing software needs to be replaced, that’s a massive one-time capital hit. A lot of costs could be saved by moving to an e-publishing model, to be sure, but I was surprised how quickly these smallish costs add up. I should note that our new publisher has a new ‘print-on-demand’ service, which has dramatically cut our costs and also will hopefully end the days of expensive and finite back issues. We are financially solvent, to be sure, but we don’t run a profit in the slightest.

    Most journals seem to also operate on an ad-exchange basis, so there are very few ‘advertising salespeople’ that I’ve run into.

    I guess we (as a profession) need to start really thinking about e-publishing, but there will also be something lost: the fun of getting a new issue, flipping through articles you probably wouldn’t specifically download, thumbing through book reviews, getting a sense of what’s going on.

    As for what Matthew raises, that’s really too sad to hear. I love it when we see somebody who had published something in Left History being approached by a large press to reprint their article as part of an anthology – not as a revenue source, of course, (heck, they could go online and download it if it’s been more than 24 months) but to see good scholarship being further distributed and extended.

  6. Ian Milligan


    We’ve always had trouble balancing access policies with institutional subscriptions. The problem is that many institutions are under such financial pressure these days that if they can get anything without paying, they’ll do it. We had a misunderstanding with a library that thought everything was available without paying, and promptly requested to cancel the institutional subscription – once they realized there was a pay-wall, they renewed.

    Without these subscriptions, the journal would become financially unsustainable, at least as a full-service production with book reviews, etc. I know there’s an argument out there in favour of that, which I’d counter by pointing to the innovative scholarship that a smaller venue can produce, and which fills a valuable niche in the Canadian journal world.

    At the end of the day, though, a lot of this seems to come down to overall professional problems of what constitutes a legitimate, recognized peer-reviewed publication. Once one of the biggies decides to move towards e-publishing, I think it would open up the opportunity for others to follow.

  7. Jim Clifford

    Hi Adam,

    I think there is a lot more work that goes into publishing major academic journals than you suggest. While a web editor might be able to work for 10 journals at a time, copy editing is almost a full time job for a single journal. I worked for ISIS, the journal of the History of Science Society, which is well funded with major institutional support from both York and the HSS. We had a very large operation to publish four issues a year. Along with the editor, there is a part-time managing editor, a copy editor, a book review editor, an assistant book review editor, three student book review assistants and a student manuscript assistant (the students all worked 10 hours a week). Even with this large staff it was always a struggle to meet publication deadlines. The copy editor, who had been with the journal for decades, needed to edit three articles, a selection of short essays, one or two review essays and about 80 book reviews every three months. Most of the time this involved email correspondence with the authors confirming changes.

    I’m a big supporter of open access publishing and creative commons, but I don’t think many of the members of the HSS would be willing to give up the many services that ISIS provides their academic community in exchange for open access for non-members.

    Cheers, Jim

  8. Adam Crymble

    Jim and Ian,

    I don’t mean to suggest journals don’t do a lot of work, or that there aren’t other costs to the operation. But that burden can’t be passed down to writers with undue pressure to give up copyright or to keep work hidden behind paywalls or in small print runs.

    If the model isn’t working, it should be up to the publishers to fix it. Not the authors.

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