Author copyright in the age of Open Access

An apparently straightforward idea, Open Access can have some important ramifications for the copyright and licensing of authors’ works. In this post, we delve into some of the issues around who owns what and when in Open Access publishing.


Open Access offers unrestricted online access to research publications in combination with specific reuse rights. These rights are set, or licensed, by the copyright holder, which is generally the author(s) in an Open Access environment. The now-famous 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), the defining statement of open access principles, makes clear the role of copyright:

“The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

This issue of who retains or obtains copyright is important as the trade in copyrights is at the core of the publishing enterprise. The ownership of copyrights is the means for the control – over the reuse and exploitation – of material, a point beautifully illustrated in a 2016 Adam Gopnik New Yorker article about how the Beatles, perhaps inadvertently, gave up control of their own music.

It is clear that copyright is complicated and the nuances generally unknown among producers of original content. It was within this context that the global non-profit organisation Creative Commons developed standardised licenses that could be used by copyright holders – such as authors of Open Access publications – to facilitate the use and reuse of their material.

As Open Access publishing has flourished, authors’ retention and control of copyright in their own works has been the cause of some angst among traditional publishers. In subscription-based publishing many publishers would require authors, like the Beatles, to assign the copyright over their work; the publisher then has control over how the work can be used and reused. Under Open Access publishing, most publishers now conform to the BOAI guidelines and allow authors to retain copyright rather than transfer it to the publisher. The author instead grants the publisher, via the Creative Commons licenses and license to publish forms, certain rights in relation to the work – such as the right to publish it in the journal.

That might be the end of the story, but for two things: one, we were alerted earlier this year to a publisher that requires authors to transfer their copyright for Open Access articles. And two, some publishers require authors to grant them the exclusive right to publish and distribute their article (in other words, their economic rights).

In an effort to see how many publishers ask for copyright in Open Access journals, we surveyed some of the larger publishers (as well as a couple of smaller ones) to see their Open Access copyright assignment and rights management policies.

PublisherWho retains copyright? Rights assigned by author to publisher
ElsevierAuthorExclusive rights
Springer NatureAuthorVaries by journal
WileyAuthorVaries by journal
Taylor & FrancisAuthorNon-exclusive rights
PLOSAuthorNon-exclusive rights
MIT PressMIT PressExclusive rights
BMJAuthorExclusive rights

The question that arises, apart from whether this practice is consistent with BOAI principles, is why publishers need to obtain copyrights or exclusive rights to publish in an Open Access environment. What is the point of them taking copyright and then making the material freely available under a Creative Commons license? The reason doesn’t appear to be primarily financial: the article processing charge, which defrays the publication costs in open access publishing, is also imposed to cover revenue not recouped from the trade in copyrights. Publishers have claimed that the transfer of copyright is necessary for them to “” or “ensure and uphold the rights of the author and handle all subsequent permission requests”, but there are publishers that don’t retain copyright and carry out these functions successfully. It may be that control – and the wider implications and fears around losing it – may be the real driver.

Many authors and institutions remain unaware of, or unconcerned about, the importance of copyright ownership to the future use and reuse of their work. Publishing agreements – such as license to publish or copyright forms – contain meaningful words, such as “rights”, “exclusive” and “irrevocable”, that require careful assessment. Understanding a publisher’s requirements and their implications should be an important part of the authors’ decision on where to publish their work.

Author: Dugald McGlashan