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Copyright and licensing – what do I need to know?

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

When you create original work, you possess the copyright.[1] When you wish to publish that work, some publishers might ask you to sign the copyright over to them as a condition of publication, so that they can disseminate the work exclusively and therefore maximise its profitability. However, you do not have to agree to this – you can ask to retain copyright, or to transfer only a limited number of your rights to the publisher.

Pay attention to the contract the publisher is asking you to sign, make sure you understand it, and negotiate if you are unhappy with any of the terms. Be aware that signing away exclusive rights to the publisher might mean that you are not able to republish the work yourself in future, if for example you wish to republish a journal article as a chapter in a book.

As a general principle, the goal of Open Access publishing is to ensure that the work is available as openly as possible to be read and used by others. Exclusivity hinders this goal, so you would expect an Open Access publisher not to ask for the author’s copyright in a work. At OBP, the author always retains their copyright.

Related to copyright, and equally significant to Open Access publishing, is licensing. Open Access is intended to remove price barriers and permission barriers (i.e. most copyright and licensing restrictions) so as to allow “free availability and unrestricted use” as PLOS describes it. As a result, Open Access works are released under a licence, so that the reader knows what they are permitted to do with the work in question without having to seek permission.

Creative Commons licences have become the standard way to license Open Access work. This short video succinctly and clearly describes the different types of licence, which are briefly listed below (I have based these descriptions on those given on the Creative Commons website):

CC BY This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials. OBP usually recommends this licence for the books we publish, but we will also publish under the other licences listed here.
CC BY-SA This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
CC BY-ND This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
CC BY-NC This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
CC BY-NC-SA This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
CC BY-NC-ND This license is the most restrictive of the six main CC 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.

Licensing means that you are in full control of your own copyright and can choose how your work is used by other people. Under every type of licence, your original work must be credited in full and all the standard rules governing plagiarism and citation apply. We generally recommend the most liberal licence because it allows, for example, whole chapters to be extracted and used in course packs without causing copyright issues for lecturers, or the work to be translated into other languages. In some cases, if work is commercially sensitive or might be commercially exploited, a more restrictive type of licence might be appropriate.

A note on plagiarism: Open Access sometimes causes authors to be nervous that their work might be more vulnerable to plagiarism, but the rules governing plagiarism and appropriate citation apply to all Open Access works under Creative Commons licences, just as they do to a work under copyright to a publisher that is hidden away in a university library. Arguably, if your work is more widely known and freely available in digital format, undetected plagiarism is less likely.

If other people’s work appears in your book or article – e.g. images or illustrations – it is important to note that the licence of this content might affect the licence of your entire work.

There are some helpful resources available to help you get to grips with copyright. These include:

These four are focused on US law but contain helpful general advice:

This blog post is part of a series for academics who want to find out more about Open Access. Click here for the other posts.

[1] This might not be the case if your work has been created as an employee during the course of your employment, but it is generally agreed that there is an exception in practice for academic work.

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