Responsibly Managing Your Copyrights

Although every one of us is a copyright holder, (recall copyright protection arises automatically as soon as an original work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression), the majority of us do not publish our copyrighted works.  In the research university setting, however, there are a great many scholars and researchers, all of whom generate significant copyrighted materials.  In particular, one of the primary outlets for communicating research results, findings, theories, ideas, and information is the scholarly journal article or monograph.

Why is it anyone else's business what I do with the copyright to my scholarly journal articles?

Scholarly journal articles, when packaged in prestigious journal titles, have acquired a position of influence and effect on the scholarly communication process far in excess of the original role they were meant to play.  The need for access to these journals has been leveraged, by the publishers, to the point where its consumption of a university library's acquisition budget has become grossly out of proportion to the information the journals provide.  Perhaps the cost of licensing access (as opposed to purchasing) to scholarly journals might return to reasonable levels if it weren't embedded in an inelastic market system and the consumers had the ability to walk away from the product (the journal).  But the library doesn't have that option.  Why can't the library simply refuse to pay these relentlessly increasing prices?

What does this have to do with copyright?

Everything.  Whoever is the copyright holder of a work has an exclusive monopoly on the use of that work, with a few education use exemptions.  Those few exemptions to the monopoly power do not extend to any sort of commercial competition, so, in effect, the copyright holder has the market monopoly of a work that was, in fact, gifted to them by the faculty author.

The scholarly communication process or cycle belongs to the scholars.  It is the means by which they advance knowledge in their field, communicate with their colleagues, and attain the respect of their peers.  Still, the primary mechanism of communication is through a peer-reviewed article. Scholars must spin their good ideas and research into gold by writing them down and having them accepted and published, preferably with a journal that has a solid reputation.  The gold the authors reap is not money but the respect of their colleagues, but, more to the point, promotion and tenure.

In pursuit of this outcome, the faculty scholar has traditionally - and without much thought - given the copyright of the work to the publisher via the publication agreement - for free! If the author didn't retain any rights for him or herself (or their university), then the publisher is in control of all the copyrights - the right to copy, modify (make derivative works), display, distribute, and perform.  In other words, absent an exemption, the author cannot use his/her own work in classes, conference presentations, and further research and scholarship.

Now the publisher has the copyright monopoly and is in a position to charge libraries (and all consumers) pretty much whatever it wants.  Why?  Because the very faculty who gave the publisher this control is now demanding electronic access, via the library, to the journals.  If faculty cannot access the journals in their field, they fall behind in the conversation.  If their colleagues face similar roadblocks to access, who will read their journal article and give them the citation numbers they need for promotion and tenure?

Libraries did not create this problem and they cannot solve it without the participation of the faculty authors.  Only the copyright holders - the faculty authors - have any ability to break this cycle.  That is what is meant by "Responsibly Managing Your Copyrights."

it means learning about your rights and responsibilities with respect to copyright.  It means understanding when you are transferring some or all of your copyright and what the consequences are for you and your university.  It means reading your publication agreements as well as potential contract addendums that might be of use.

Libraries and library associations have been engaged in raising awareness of the role scholar authors play in the scholarly communication cycle:

SPARC Author Rights & the SPARC Author Addendum

University of Minnesota Libraries Manage Your Copyright

Cornell University Library Author Rights Resources

Columbia Law School Keep Your Copyrights