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Who retains the Copyright to a published article?

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Who retains the Copyright to a published article?

Intellectual property (IP) includes patents, copyright, database rights and trademarks. As a researcher who works as part of an institution, and as such is financially supported by the institution, there are typically policies that govern who owns the IP related to your research. It is important to know these policies. Research innovations may qualify for IP protection. At most institutions, faculty and staff sign a patent and copyright agreement. According to this agreement, researchers are required to disclose any invention to the institution. Beyond knowing what these policies are, you also need to know when you transfer copyright and how that works. At times in your career, you will also sign over copyright to a book publisher or a journal or maybe even a company that hires you as a consultant.


Copyright is generally used for works of authorship such as academic papers, books, music and works of art. Copyright is governed by copyright law and as such institutional policies have to follow this law. Generally, institutional policies state that copyright remains with the creator for researchers working at the institution. However, for staff it might vary and in some cases the copyright remains with the institution. In addition, when institutions contract work through “work for hire”, the copyright for that work often transfers to the institution. These terms are outlined in the work for hire contract. So, if you conduct work through a contract with another organisation or institution, it is important to read the terms of your contract very carefully.

Copyright ownership

It is very important for authors to understand copyright ownership, not just for their own work but also when using the work of others: for example, a paper they distribute for students to read. Fair use provides conditions under which limited distribution of copyrighted materials is allowed. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) provides some guidance on fair use. They conclude the article by stating:

"If you have any doubt about whether or not the work you want to use is covered under fair use, contact the copyright holder before using the work. When using a copyrighted work, get the original version legally and be sure to follow any additional instructions the copyright holder has for you, including how to cite the work." (Purdue OWL)

Copyright ownership allows the owner to reproduce the work, present the work, adapt and modify the work, and publish the work. You can also transfer the copyright to a third party or other users. When you publish a paper in a traditional journal, you typically sign a copyright transfer form, which means that you transfer the copyright over to the journal and can no longer reproduce the work, present the work or publish the work elsewhere. Assigning the copyright enables the publisher to:

  • Manage your work and make it available to subscribers or the academic community.
  • Oversee any requests for reuse of your work.
  • Take action if there are any incidents of infringement or plagiarism.

Often a publisher will permit the author certain rights with the work. For example, they might allow the author to self-archive the final peer-reviewed version in an institutional repository. However, not all publishers permit this and you should always check the publisher’s policy to see whether this is allowed. After assigning copyright, the author generally will retain the right to:

Creative Commons (CC) licenses

If you publish in an Open Access venue you can often choose the type of Creative Commons (CC) license you want. There are six CC licenses.

Creative Commons LicenseAbbreviationDescription
AttributionCC-BYAllows others to distribute, adapt and build upon your work, and use it commercially, but they have to credit you for the original work.
Attribution-Share AlikeCC-BY-SAAllows the public to remix, adapt and build upon your work even for commercial purposes; they have to credit you and they have to license their new creations under identical terms to those you followed. As an example: this is the license used by Wikipedia.
Attribution-NoDerivativesCC-BY-NDAllows the public to reuse your work for any purpose, including commercially; however, there can be no derivatives, which means it cannot be shared with others in any adapted form and they must credit you.
Attribution-NonCommercialCC-BY-NCAllows the public to remix, adapt and build upon your work non-commercially; their new work must credit you and be non-commercial but they don’t have to license their derivative works with the same terms that you agreed to.
Attribution-Noncommercial-Share AlikeCC-BY-NC-SAAllows the public to remix, adapt and build upon your work non-commercially as long as they credit you and license their new creations under identical terms to those you agreed to.
Attribution-Noncommercial-No DerivativesCC-BY-NC-NDThis is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Copyright duration

Copyright in a work does not last forever. Duration of copyright depends on the type of work and can differ across countries. However, for scholarly publications and academic articles, the duration is usually the life of the author plus 70 years.


Whenever you share your work through publishing, presenting or consulting, you should make sure you have checked out the policies and fully understand what that this will mean for the copyright to your work.


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