Managing Your Own Copyright

Contracts with Publishers

When your book, article, image, or other work is accepted for publication, the publisher will give you a contract to sign. This contract usually transfers to the publisher all copyright of your work. The publisher is granted not only the exclusive right to publish your work, but also the exclusive right to enter into contracts or give permission for future uses of your work (such as its inclusion in a database such as JSTOR, its re-publication, or use by individual people) and to charge permission fees for such uses. Once you transfer your copyright to a publisher, even you, the author, must seek the publisher's permission for uses beyond what is permitted by Fair Use and the other exemptions specified in the law.

Although it may prove difficult, you are entitled to negotiate the contract. For example, you may want to assign to a publisher the right to publish your article in a scholarly journal, but reserve the right to make your article available on the Web in a publicly accessible archive after a certain length of time has passed.

Some publishers permit professors and students to freely copy works or parts of work for many academic uses. Other publishers have restrictive policies and require high permission fees. Consider the model you want to support. Copyright is one consideration among many to bear in mind when deciding which publishers to consider for your own publications.

This is not to say that publishers who charge permission fees are acting unfairly. Each publisher has a legitimate interest in how the works it publishes are made available and used, and at what price. The copyright law is concerned with balancing the interests of copyright holders and users of copyrighted works, in order to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts" (see chapter 2 of this guide, "The Meaning and Purpose of Copyright"). The better you understand copyright law, the better equipped you are to encourage publishers to maintain this balance.

Registering Your Copyright

To register your copyright, follow the instructions provided by the U.S. Copyright Office at http://www.copyright.gov. As of this writing, the registration fee is $35.

It is not necessary to register your copyright in order to assert it. It is recommended that you do so, however, for the following reasons:

  • If you want to encourage people to seek your permission for uses beyond what the law grants them, you should make it possible for them to find out who you are and how you may be reached.
  • If you do not register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, you may not be able to collect damages in the event of a lawsuit.

Granting Permissions

As a copyright holder, you may assign or license all or some of your rights to others. For example, you may decide to allow unlimited copying and distribution of your work with the proviso that the uses made of it be strictly non-commercial. Or, you may allow one theatre club to perform your play but not give permission to other clubs.

If you retain copyright to your work, consider marking it with a Creative Commons license in order to provide potential users with information about the types of uses you are willing to grant automatically. This will obviate the need for the user to get in touch with you to ask permission for those uses, and may help make your work more widely known and used. For more information, please consult http://www.creativecommons.org/license.

Exclusive rights must be granted in writing, but nonexclusive rights (that is, rights you may give to more than one party) can be granted orally as well as in writing.

Joint Copyright

You may hold copyright jointly with other creators or authors of a work. In such cases, the parties are free to exercise their rights independently, including the right to grant non-exclusive rights to new parties, as long as profits are shared equally. One party cannot re-assign copyright or grant an exclusive right to new parties, however, without the consent of the others.

If you embark upon a work of joint authorship, you are advised to consider the copyright question carefully. You and your colleague(s) should put your copyright agreement in writing, before the project begins.

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