What is copyright and why should it concern me?

What is copyright?

Copyright is part of the area of law called intellectual property. The aim of intellectual property law is essentially to encourage creativity and innovation by protecting the rights of creators while, at the same time, ensuring that the public can benefit from the innovation in the form of cultural, social and economic development.

Generally, the author or creator of a work is automatically the first owner of the copyright in the work. Copyright owners can transfer their copyright to a third party. Many academic journal publishers currently ask authors to assign copyright in a work to them as part of the submission process. If a work is created in the course of employment, the employer can sometimes assert ownership of that copyright. For more information see the copyright section of the QUT Intellectual Property Policy.

Why should copyright concern me, as a researcher or scholar?

Copyright owners have a number of exclusive rights, including:

  • the right to publish the material
  • the right to reproduce the work (for example, by copying or scanning)
  • the right to communicate the work to the public (for example, by making it available online, by emailing it or by faxing it).

Consequently, if you assign copyright, unconditionally, to the publisher of a subscription-based journal, they become the copyright owner of your work. The implications of this include:

  • Publisher permission will be required to post a copy of the work on your personal web-page or disseminate a copy of the work via your institution's open access repository.
  • Only people who can afford to pay for access to the journal will be able to read your article. When potential readers are denied access, it can seriously restrict the impact of your research.
  • Publisher permission (and often a fee) will also be required to distribute a copy of your article to your students (either online or via a course pack).

There are a number of strategies which can help you manage your copyright effectively when dealing with publishing agreements.