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Technical Issues in Publishing

Copyright Confusion: Making Sense of the Publishing Agreement


Amy Clark, Associate Editor

April 2020

Your manuscript is your intellectual property, and as the author you own the rights to that property. These rights are called the copyright and you are the copyright owner. However, when you choose to have a journal publish your manuscript, making it available to a readership, you must give some or all of these rights to the journal publisher. This is called licensing or transferring the copyright. The transfer is made through a legal document called the copyright form (or something similar such as journal publishing agreement or copyright assignment) that is signed by you and the publisher. Just how much of these rights, and for how long a duration you will give these rights to the publisher, depends on the journal and its policies, including its open access policies, which is where things get complicated. At some point in the publication process, often at the time of submission of the article, you will be asked to fill out a form that details the terms of the agreement, and enables you to select and understand what rights you will give the journal and what rights you will retain. The journal will use this form when it comes time to finalize the agreement after your article is accepted for publication.

Understanding copyright and how it works

What follows is a guide to the terms and choices you might encounter as you proceed through the copyright form from top to bottom. This will give you a basic introduction. Be sure to consult the website for your target journal for detailed information specific to that journal’s copyright policies.

Copyright – an intellectual property protection for creative works, including academic articles, photos, graphs, and figures.

Copyright owner or copyright holder – the person, company, or agency that owns the rights to the article. Below are examples of the copyright owner.

Copyright form (also known as the journal publishing agreement, copyright transfer agreement, and copyright assignment form) – the document signed by the copyright holder and the journal publisher that establishes the terms and conditions for the copyright licensing or copyright transfer.

Understanding copyright and how it works

FAQ – My article is authored by more than one person. Do each of us need to fill out and sign the form?

Corresponding author (also referred to as contributor on some forms) – the author who completes and signs the copyright form on behalf of all authors.

FAQ – I wrote the article but the I am not the copyright holder. What do I do?

Does copyright differ for subscription-based and open access journals?


Assignment or Transfer of Copyright – In many cases, especially for journals that are subscription-based (not open access), you will completely transfer the article copyright to the journal, giving the journal exclusive rights to publish and disseminate the article and all of its components (such as tables, figures, and supplementary material) in any form, in all languages, throughout the world.

FAQ – What rights do I retain if any after I transfer the copyright to the journal?

In all of these cases, authors should properly acknowledge the published article and include a link to where the published article can be found.

FAQ –What if I want to reuse a figure or table from my published article in a book or in another article? Can I just go ahead and use it since I created the figure or table?


Copyright terms explained



Completing the copyright form can be tricky, especially when open access options are presented. If you are unsure about any aspect of the form, consult the explanatory resources on the journal’s website and do not hesitate to email the journal team with your questions. Sign and submit the form only when you fully understand what you are agreeing to.

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