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Understand Copyright Transfer Agreements

Your work, your rights. When publishing, read the Copyright Transfer Agreement with great care.

Doing research, whether it’s bench science, big data crunching, or literary criticism needs to be shared with our peers in the scholarly community to make an impact. For many of us, that means publishing an article in a journal, or a book chapter, or even a whole book.

Just writing an article and getting it through the peer-review process is hard. When acceptance comes, we probably feel thrilled and excited. But, in the acceptance process there’s also something common called a “copyright transfer agreement”, often a form, which you will be asked to fill out and sign.

What is it and what does it mean? What should you do when you get something like this? First of all, it’s important to understand what a copyright transfer agreement entails.

  • At HKUST, the Intellectual Property Policy states that students and researchers own the copyright for written coursework, theses, papers, or publications as literary works.
    • So, you usually start off owning the copyright in (say) an article that has been accepted for publication.
  • A copyright transfer agreement is a means by which the publisher has you transfer (give) the ownership of the copyright to them.
    • Why do publishers ask authors to transfer the copyright?
      • To safeguard their legal right to publish & sell the contents of their journal and make money (often for profit).
    • Is this a problem?
      • Sometimes an agreement may give the publisher more rights than you want to give them.
      • It may limit the public’s access to research that is often funded by governments or charities.
  • A transfer of rights is usually not “all or nothing”. Different publishers have different types of transfer agreements, depending on their business model, how you are publishing, and other factors. There is often room for choice or negotiation.
    • You can look up different publisher’s copyright transfer agreements on their own website (often under an “author rights” link).
    • Subscription-based journals’ transfer agreements:
      • Usually gives the publisher exclusive rights to publish and distribute the author’s work.
      • Usually have limits on how the authors can only share the final published article.
    • Open Access journals’ transfer agreements.
      • Usually publish an author’s article using some variety of Creative Commons licensing.
      • Often charge “article processing charges” (APC) to make up for the money they may not get via charging a subscription
    • You can use Sherpa-Romeo to search by journal title or publisher name to see their usual policies on copyright transfer.

To learn more about this important topic, visit this section of the Author Tips Library Guide, called Author Rights. The Library will also be giving two workshops on this topic this November, and again in the spring semester. The workshop slides are also on the guide. In addition, the PolyU Library has a very detailed Library Guide on Copyrights on Published Works, check it out here.

– By Victoria Caplan, Library

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published November 16, 2021
last modified March 11, 2022