Answered By: Woodruff Library Reference
Last Updated: Feb 19, 2015     Views: 135

What rights do authors have and where do they come from?

U.S. Copyright Law grants authors an exclusive set of rights as soon as you have created an "original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression" and you own all the rights in that work.  You do not need to register with the Copyright Office or even use a copyright notice, such as ©, although both may be recommended in some circumstances.  You retain these rights until you sign them away to someone else.

The exclusive rights you are granted include:

  • to reproduce the work
  • to prepare derivative works (e.g. one work derived from another, such as a journal article derived from a book chapter)
  • to distribute copies of the work
  • to publicly perform the work
  • to publicly display the work, directly or by telecommunication
  • to publicly perform a sound recording by digital means

You retain these rights for your life plus 70 years, so your heirs will inherit your copyrights. 

Copyright and publishing

If you publish your work, it is likely the publisher will ask for some or all of these rights.  Copyright ownership can only be transferred in writing, which is why authors are asked by publishers to sign Author Agreements (sometimes called Publisher Agreements).  A publisher does not need all of your rights under copyright to publish your work, but traditionally publishers have included a transfer of copyright in their Author Agreements because it gives them the greatest ability to monetize the work and the most flexibility in re-using the work.

Since copyright is a bundle of rights, authors can transfer all or some of the exclusive rigahts or license some of their rights.  For example, Nature Publishing Group asks it's authors to grant NPG an exclusive license to publish, in return for which they can reuse their papers in their future printed work without first requiring permission from the publisher.

Obviously each publisher will have it's own policy, but you do have options.  First, journal author agreements are negotiable.   Even if a publisher asks for transfer of copyright, you can still retain some rights to re-use your own work.  Some examples include:

  • right to make copies of all or part of the article for teh authors use in classroom teaching
  • royalty-free right to use, after publication, all or part of the article in any book of which he or she is the author or editor
  • right to use figures and tables from the article, and up to 250 words of text, for any purpose.

If you have questions about a specific journal author agreement, please contact Lisa Macklin at or (404) 727-1535.

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