Copyright Query

For the last six weeks, I’ve been writing up my dissertation away from my home university. Most of the time, this is pretty straightforward. I stay in touch with my adviser via email. I remain plugged in to on-campus events and intrigue thanks the the 700 listservs that I can’t for the life of me elude. I am a library log-in away from most journals that I mine for relevant articles, and from a miraculous service at UM’s libraries in which work-study students scan articles and book chapters that aren’t digitally available and shoot them to me in an email. Today — trauma of traumas — I finally needed a reference that I couldn’t access digitally. This is far from the end of the world, but it did remind me how damn lucky (and probably a little overwhelmed) we are to have so much information just a click away, at least three-quarters of the time. 

In particular, I got to thinking about the awesomeness that is, where we can freely upload things we’ve written to share with our colleagues. I especially appreciate when folks upload conference papers; it gives me a chance to revisit their presentations with more focus than I can usually muster during a meeting, and in many cases, it seems like a sneak peek at the newest and most exciting research on a particular topic (even if it’s not totally polished — and that’s ok!). Here’s my question though — aren’t there copyright issues when it comes to uploading articles and book chapters to a platform like I notice that some folks post such things with PDFs attached, while others just list a citation. As a consumer of said PDFs, I am delighted when I can download something straight from As a producer of said PDFs, I would be delighted to upload these materials for others to download… but I am also wary of “the man,” a.k.a. whoever holds our articles’/chapters’ copyright. Is there a hard and fast rule on this front? Can we or can’t we upload? Or does it vary from journal to journal, press to press, contract to contract? Is “the man” eventually going to crack down on sites like I sure hope not. I respectfully acknowledge that presses and journals need to collect some revenue in order to keep this peer-reviewed publication machine rolling (or at least to maintain server space), but conversations about open access don’t seem to be going anywhere either (I would argue, rightfully so). File sharing on might only be only a small piece of this puzzle, but for me, it’s such a darned handy piece. What do you guys think? 


11 comments on “Copyright Query

  1. Ken Sassaman says:

    Timely topic Alice. AAA, SAA, and many other professional organizations are actively debating the implications of open access. Many organizations, like SAA, compromise on the risk to revenues by allowing authors to post pdfs of their work on whatever source they’d like, such as or personal websites. I can put together a string of recent missives about this as regards AAA and SAA policy, but suffice to say that these organizations are both supportive of open access in a philosophical sense and wary of its impact on revenue. My sense is that they are honestly seeking alternatives to revenue because open access is inevitable. One alternative that no one seems to like is passing costs on to authors, which gets us back to where we started — buying the rights to things we produced. Trade outfits are different as they tap into other revenue and often charge astronomical amounts for the digital resources you download from the library. I have little regard for that end of the business and gladly distribute my pdfs whenever I can. Because no one wants them, I’m not likely to be sharing a jail cell with Julian Assange.

  2. Meg says:

    Alice, these are great questions and I sure look forward to reading all the replies from people more experience at this game than me! (Thanks, Ken!) I have been asking similar questions recently… particularly when it comes to images. When do you own the copyright to your own figures, maps, etc. and when does the publication they were originally published in own them? Obviously, we all need to publish the same site map numerous times, but does that cause issues if you don’t always cite back to the first one, or worse, have to get permission from the original publisher?

    • jayur says:

      I think we were replying at the same time. Jinx?

    • Ken Sassaman says:

      Meg – figures like maps and other line drawings are an interesting lot. Scan them, redraw in Illustrator with your own customization, and it’s now yours. Add the attribution “adapted from Smith 2001” to the caption and you are good to go. I do it all the time. Beats asking for permission plus you have a fresh digital file that can be adapted for other uses. Of course, complex maps like topos are a pain to digitized but worth the time and effort for both clarity and full access.

    • Patrick Livingood says:


      Getting publisher permission for your own maps doesn’t have to be a hassle most of the time. As for other people’s maps: I once did some work for a textbook publisher. They took published maps, copied and changed a little, and felt comfortable under copyright law publishing them in a commercial text. I forget the procedure they described to me, but as I recall they only felt compelled to change or add about 20% of the content. It struck me as potentially very little new contribution, but coupled with an “adapted from Smith 2000” line is usually sufficient.

  3. jayur says:

    I am a huge fan of open source publishing and am not at all a fan of the costs to authors. The cost to US based authors/scholars is incredibly high for PlosOne and, as far as I know, they don’t negotiate costs until after you’ve submitted and been accepted. I like the open source concept but for authors, grants or other types of funding are necessary to support publishing costs. I also like publishing in the digital medium, which means full color isn’t a problem, and the article can be available right away. There are of course the concerns of quality and scholarship – several libraries are compiling lists of “predatory” open source journals.

    Regarding copyrights, I also love it when I can find an article PDF posted online by the author, especially if its not available through the traditional databases. In the end, I doubt there are very many “copyright police” out there watching what we post and don’t. Just don’t download any Metallica….

  4. Patrick Livingood says:

    Along the lines that Ken mentioned, copyright law can be very tricky and vague. There are lots of fair use provisions for teaching and research that apply to us which means that there are almost never any hard and fast rules for our work. All of the lawyerly discussion on this topic revolves around how much risk you are comfortable taking on with whatever strategy you choose.

    I had to talk to lawyers and IP librarians last year about a copyright issue (but not self-archiving). I was was both frustrated at the lack of definite answers and surprised at the how much they encouraged going ahead with plans that were under development. The reality is, that as far as the people I was chatting with knew, there are no cases of individual researchers or teachers that have ever been sued personally over this scale of sharing. Publishers can, and do, sometimes send out cease and desist letters, but it rarely escalated beyond that. This is a long way of saying that my own strategy is to use a beg forgiveness rather than ask permission strategy. I try and self-archive as much as possible and simply use common sense with respects of the interests of the publishers and organizations that support our work. I tend to make journal articles available soon after publication, but wait to make available book chapters from books that are still in print.

  5. Ken Sassaman says:

    FYI, latest issue of Science has special section on scientific communication and NPR this morning had a follow-up story on open access in which a Science editor concocted a research report with imaginary data and sent to it something like 200 journals, a large fraction of which accepted it for publication. Raises the thorny issue of peer-review in open access journals. Will the technology outpace the usual quality control?

  6. So a couple of comments-

    Many publishers allow you to post pre-prints to your own personal website, archive etc. a pre-print being the article before you submit or before it does into the style of the journal. Sometimes the papers are identical (content-wise maybe font changes or page numbers added etc.) sometimes they can be very different e.g. some peer review changes it alot. These are a lot of what you find on academia or in university repositories.

    Technically- you own the copyright to a pre-print unless you sign away that right. The actual final article is what you give up copyright to. Though if there are very similar and all that changes is page numbers then it gets tricky with changes being enough to make them different.

    Even more technically- most people who work for universities don’t own copyrights that they sign away- the university does as it is work for hire. So if your university says it’s ok then you can post what you want. Though not all universities do this.

    So if it is a pre-print then pretty much legal -unless you signed away those rights. As for suing people for posting academic articles it has yet to happen. It is basically the same issue as the music industry. For awhile they sued people over file sharing but have since given up because even if they get 20k back they still lose money. It is not economical to sue most individuals (really rich people or companies is a different issue) so it will never happen.

    Legally- a bit grey
    Practical- probably never be sued
    Morally- that is up to you

    PS- on ken’s last comment about open access and the science article- it is a bit of OA bashing. Not all OA publishers accepted it, PLOS1 rejected it. Moreover, the same trick has been done with traditional publishers and it is a flaw with peer review not OA. Their study did not use a control and only submitted to OA journals (admittedly many of which are scams and would accept anything). There is a reason that science article is not peer reviewed- it would have failed. No one would have allowed a test like that get published without some sort of control. Basically, it could only look negative for OA because traditional pay-wall journals were not tested.

  7. dover1952 says:

    Folks. My experience has been that Doug Rocks MacQueen stays pretty much on top of open access and related issues as a personal specialty area. His is likely the most complete and reliable answer here.

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