Demystifying that Paragraph about Copyright in Your Book Contract

Read your contract! Not so easily done, especially for authors of books. Book contracts are long, dense, and confusing. The essay below is a guest post by Stephanie Vyce, director of intellectual property, Harvard University Press, for H-Net’s excellent Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

The legal agreement you have with your publisher does many things. Two of the most important are articulating how the publisher may publish and use your work and how copyright registration and enforcement will be handled.

When you enter into an agreement with a publisher, you are deliberately ceding at least some of your publishing rights to the publisher in exchange for their services and any compensation they may offer. Your publisher may propose handling any and all publishing rights, in which case you may opt to take advantage of their expertise in selling and licensing your work in all formats by assigning all rights to them. Or, you may wish, at the start, to control certain rights yourself. The terms of your publishing agreement should define the rights your publisher will handle. This part of the contract will have an impact on how copyright can be registered and enforced.

Copyright is, simply, the right to make and make use of copies. (See the US Copyright Office’s Circular 1 Copyright Basics for more information.)  Except in some special cases, when you create an original work, you are, automatically, the copyright holder and have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, adapt, display, and perform it, with some limited exceptions (such as fair use and parody, both of which can be exploited by others without your permission).

Though copyright registration is not required to possess copyright, it is an important step in protecting your work as registration is a prerequisite for filing suit and registration creates a verifiable record of a given work so that the copyright owner can more easily demonstrate their ownership in the event of a legal claim.

The terms of your agreement will spell out who is responsible for enforcing copyright. If registered in your name, you may be assuming responsibility for enforcing the copyright in your work. If registered in the name of your publisher, or, in the case of some university presses, in the name of their institution, they will typically assume that responsibility. Having the copyright in the name of your publisher may provide you with a valuable benefit, as they often have the tools and expertise to respond to copyright infringement that you as an individual might not possess or have easy access to.

Check your contract for two important concepts: assignment and license. Should you choose to assign all rights to your publisher, copyright cannot be registered in your name because you are, in that case and by definition, ceding all of your rights. If you grant a license to all or certain rights to your work, you are allowing your publisher to make use of those rights but still own the rights yourself. In this case, copyright can be registered in your name, because the rights belong to you. If having copyright registered in your name at publication is important to you, you will need to be clear about your intention to assign or grant a license, and in the case of granting a license, negotiate with your publisher which right or rights you will retain and handle yourself or through another party, like an agent. Note that registering copyright in your own name does not automatically mean you can exercise all rights. You’re still licensing some or all of them to your publisher to exercise on your behalf.

If copyright is registered in the name of your publisher and your agreement is ever canceled, you can request a transfer of copyright to you as part of the reversion of rights, the terms of which should be included in your agreement. Your contract might include a clause setting out how rights reversion will work in the event that the contract is terminated.

The assignment or licensing of rights and the registration of copyright are two complementary but distinct negotiating points in any publishing agreement. Having clear language about which party—you or your publisher—will handle certain categories of publishing rights and in whose name copyright will be registered, and by extension which party is responsible for enforcing that copyright, will set both you and your publisher up for success. Be sure to consult with the Office of the General Counsel of your institution, your agent, our your own lawyer for advice on making the best decision for you.

Stephanie Vyce started her career in books at the Harvard Bookstore in Harvard Square where she was a bookseller for two years. She then joined the sales department at Harvard University Press and represented Harvard, Yale, and MIT Presses to accounts from Vermont to Virginia. Next stop, Subsidiary Rights Manager, responsible for licensing translation, reprint, dramatic, and audio book rights to HUP titles. Since 2012, she has been the Director of Intellectual Property at HUP.

Vyce, Stephanie. “Demystifying That Paragraph about Copyright in Your Book Contract.” Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications., 7 Feb. 2024,

published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

Diamonds for authors #1: Subscribe to Open

Subscribe to Open logoThis post, the first in a series, introduces City Tech faculty to free-to-author, immediate open access publishing options.

Diamond iconNot all open access is funded the same way and the scholarly publishing community has proven highly creative in designing new models and related initiatives that grow diamond open access, open access without fees to authors. One of the larger programs is Subscribe to Open (S2O). Libraries pay part of their journal subscription funds to support ‘flipping’ a subscription journal to diamond open access. S2O, with funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, was created by non-profit science publisher Annual Reviews. As of the end of 2023, 151 journals are using the S2O model.

S20 doesn’t convert all journals from a specific publisher to diamond open access but rather clusters of titles deemed important enough to merit the funding to convert. Publisher and library participants in S2O represent a wide variety of disciplines and geographical locations. You can peruse the list of the specific journals that have been flipped under S20.  Interested in finding other diamond open access journals? It’s easy to use the Directory of Open Access journal search tool and filter by ‘without fees.’

Mathematical Sciences Publishers recently announced that, via S2O, five of their most popular journals are now diamond open access: Geometry & Topology, Algebraic & Geometric Topology,  Algebra & Number Theory, Analysis and PDE, Pacific Journal of Mathematics.

How Subscribe to Open works

Diamond by Nadia Zilfah from Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)

Working with Your Editor: Previously Published Material in Your Manuscript

Book authors sometimes incorporate text from their dissertations or previous publications in their book manuscripts. How to handle reuse, with or without modification, is confusing and touches on copyright and authors rights: authors should always review their contract and may need to request permission to reuse their writing. The essay below is a Guest post by Walter Biggins, editor-in-chief, University of Pennsylvania Press, for H-Net’s excellent Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

If you’re preparing a draft of your manuscript to submit to a publisher, then the final throes of that will involve ironing out its wrinkles. Your manuscript may wrestle with complex ideas and engage with a wide array of sources. It may even employ perspectives and argumentative modes that aren’t commonly used for your discipline. It may argue with key works of scholarship in your field.

In short: Your manuscript probably has a lot of bunches, folds, and lumps. That’s not bad, so long as the presentation is as smooth as possible, in ways that are clean and clear to you and to your press alike.

One of the most common lumps, and sometimes the most time-consuming and process-disorienting to sort out, involves previously published material. Authors often think about material that comes from outside their own work as the problematic wrinkles—i.e., permissions. Do you have permission to reproduce that Warhol painting in your book? Or that map of Mordor? Or those Notorious B.I.G. lyrics? Or that seven-page extract from The Magic Mountain? Can you use this Bob Dylan verse as an epigraph to chapter 3, because you like it and, golly, that seems like fair use to you?

All that is worth considering, and needs to be resolved before you submit a final manuscript. (Spoiler alert: get rid of the Dylan.) But, in concentrating so acutely on the problems that might be caused by others’ work, you often forget to think of your own. In this manuscript, you should ask yourself, what of my own work has appeared elsewhere, and what should I do about that material?

Usually, your own previously published material could fall into five rough categories: scholarly articles published in peer-reviewed journals; essays published in an edited collection; pieces produced for mainstream media, such as magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals; material produced for non-print formats, such as podcasts and audiobooks; and conference papers.

In all of those cases except for the last one, you probably signed an agreement with the publisher of said periodical, book, or platform that granted the press the right to use your work. So, if a version of that material is going to be used in your book, you need to request permission for this—even if the original piece has been altered significantly for publication in book form.

For scholarly monographs and edited collections, there is typically no fee for this use, though the original periodical may request that your book attributes the source of the material properly. Ask if there is a specific credit line to be used, and a specific placement—on the copyright page, for example—where the credit should appear. Many contributor agreements for journals and inclusion in edited collections will include a clause granting permission of this sort; it’s worth requesting said clause if you don’t see it in the original agreement. Furthermore, many journals will spell out the specific granted rights for contributors on their websites, so check there as well.

It’s a good idea to check with a journal before you sign a contract with it about its terms for re-use of your material, and make sure that this is possible. It’s always worth finding out whether the contract stipulates if your work can be reproduced by the journal—in, let’s say, a best-of anthology of the journal—or if the journal can sell the right to have your material reproduced elsewhere, in other languages, and in other formats.

This can become a critical issue if your manuscript’s research was funded and/or sponsored in part by a university, academic affiliation, or institutional grant. An example: Let’s say your manuscript is a revised, greatly overhauled version of your dissertation. The university deposits the defended dissertation into its institutional repository. In doing so, it is possible that the work has been embargoed, which is to say access to it has been restricted in some way, usually for a limited period of time. The University of Oklahoma’s Libraries has a pretty good rundown on the reasons behind embargoes, and why you might choose this process for early versions of your work.

The main issue is that you need to be aware of what this means, and that embargoing parts of the work may mean that it’s problematic for it to appear in your book. You should make your book editor aware of any previously published material within your manuscript, and of the potential restrictions that this may cause, well before you submit everything.

…there’s a tricky balance between creating eager anticipation for the book and over-exposing it…

This is a practical consideration with legal ramifications. Your editor also needs to know how much, and where, your book’s material has appeared for marketing reasons. Your press certainly wants knowledge of your work, and acclaim for it, to be visible prior to the book’s publication. So, access to material related to the book is often a good thing. But there’s a tricky balance between creating eager anticipation for the book and over-exposing it so that its potential buyers think they already know the book—and thus don’t need to buy it. A good editor will be candid with you about how much of the work can be previously published before the exposure adversely affects its reception. My rule of thumb is no more than 25% of it should be accessible freely elsewhere; other editors will have different opinions. The point is: You should check, and plan accordingly.

That, in fact, is the key. At every step of the process, think carefully about what you’re published from the book, in what venues, and if you’ve got permission to do so. Ironing out this wrinkle will save you a lot of time and potential publication delay, and allow your experience to go as smoothly as it can.

Walter Biggins is Editor in Chief at University of Pennsylvania Press where he acquires cultural studies, intellectual and political history of the Americas, as well as Atlantic World and postcolonial studies. Biggins is also a freelance writer and is a coauthor of Bob Mould’s Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). 

Biggins, Walter. “Working with Your Editor: Previously Published Material in Your Manuscript.” Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications., 2 Feb. 2024,  published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License