Physicists and Copyright-How to give away your birthright for what?

By W. G. Unruh

That ignorant referee has finally conceded that he was wrong and your paper has now been accepted by the Journal of Extraordinary Physics for publication. Among all of the other things in the acceptance letter is a Copyright Transfer Form for you to sign and send to them before they will publish your paper. You sign without even reading it. After all everyone else signs is so it must be okay.

Two weeks later, you get an email from the conference you attended last summer. They want a manuscript. You grab that paper, rewrite some paragraphs from it, change a few captions or even details in the figures and send it off as a conference proceeding, signing another copyright transfer form for those publishers. You also make 30 copies of the paper to distribute to your students in your class. The University of Peerdom invites you to give a talk on the work and pays you a small honorarium, or you speak at a conference that charges a conference fee and records the talks.

You have just done what hundreds of other physicists have done. If those actions are not specifically reserved to you in your copyright transfer agreement, you have also broken the law of copyright, and in some countries (like Canada) committed a criminal offense.

When you sign that copyright transfer agreement, you give away to the publishers all rights to that paper. You no longer have any more rights to use the material in that paper than I have unless that publisher explicitly gives you some rights. You cannot take parts of that paper and reuse them, anymore than I could do so with your paper.

Copyright law applies not only to the original work, and all parts of that original work, but also to “derivative works” that “depend on” that original. If you give a talk on your paper with your computer slides containing material from the paper, and that talk is recorded, that recorded talk is a derived work of the paper, and is controlled by the copyright on the paper. (Recorded talks are “fixed” and the copyright applies to them.) If you give that recorded talk without the express permission of the copyright owner you may have broken the law. If you write a summary of that work for a conference proceeding, you probably have no right to transfer the copyright to that conference-proceeding publisher. You must obtain the permission of the journal to transfer the copyright in this new work.

In many cases the journals do reserve some rights to the authors. Unless they do so, you are legally obliged to request and obtain permission from the publishers of that journal for each and every use you make of any of the material in that publication. Whether you write a new paper based on that original paper, you deliver a recorded lecture showing the figures or text (or figures derived from those figures) in a lecture, post that article on your web site, make copies of the paper for your students, or abstract material for that conference proceeding, you are legally required to obtain permission to do so if that permission is not already specifically contained in the copyright transfer form. You also cannot lift paragraphs, or rephrase paragraphs from the original (even with citation) without getting the express permission of the journal.

The APS reserves some rights to the authors, in a number of different categories. For the medium of print, reprinting of the paper or parts thereof is allowed, but only if not in another journal and only if no fee is involved. Copies are allowed to be made for classroom use, but only if these do not become a permanent part of the class notes. The article, but not derived works from the article can be posted on your own (not others’) web pages. You may “post” to eprint servers, but it seems there is no permission to license the article to them (as demanded by the arXiv). APS has stated that it does not mind the perpetual license option the arXiv offers, but refuses to countenance the Creative Commons licenses, and apparently will not publish a paper submitted to the arXiv under that license.

This situation is absurd. You have labored long and hard in producing that paper. You have then given the results of that labor away “for free” to the publisher (or even paid them page charges). Why would you then also give away all rights to reuse that material or anything based on that material?

The publishers argue that they need this copyright transfer in order to publish your paper. They do not. They do need your permission to publish it.

The APS worries that placing the old journal papers on the web or making special collections of noteworthy old papers could be disputed by their authors. They fear that they would have to get everyone’s permission if the APS did not own the copyright. But this is almost certainly covered by an exclusive license or at most by their owning the copyright in the article as a whole. They do not need to own the right to control all derivative works or reuse by the author of parts of the work.

Other journals (e.g., the Canadian Journal of Physics) leave the author no rights whatsoever. Some (e.g., Royal Society of London journals) only ask for a license, leaving the copyright with the author.

All copyright transfer forms should explicitly allow the authors to make derivative works, in any context, commercial or non-commercial. It is their paper. Some limits (such as not using exactly the same form of the work as was published) may be reasonable, but the current situation is not. And the publishers will not change unless they are pressured to do so by their authors. That is you. You should not sign a copyright transfer agreement in which the journal does not renounce their interest in derivative works which you create from the paper, or of your right to reuse parts of the paper.

That copyright transfer form is not innocuous. It is a legal document in which you are giving away your rights. Before you sign that copyright transfer form, read it carefully, and think about it. Ask yourself if what you get back in exchange for that transfer (e.g., publication) is worth what you are giving away: the right to disseminate your idea as widely as possible.

Or submit your papers to journals willing to make agreements that reflect the way physics research is actually done today.

William G. Unruh is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of British Columbia, and fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

A Response from APS

APS publishes journals in order to serve the needs of the international physics community. Our contributions include certification of the value of the papers we publish through peer review by referees whose contributions we respect and value, professional composition and copy editing, electronic hosting and archiving, and continual protection of the integrity of the definitive archival record of our authors’ work for the benefit of current and future researchers and scholars. 

Copyright has traditionally played a large role in many of these activities. The move to electronic publishing, in which APS has been a pioneer, demands ongoing reexamination of our copyright policies. Our aim is to provide the maximum freedom and convenience for authors while preserving the financial health of APS publications, which enables us to create archives, collections of papers, etc., and to defend the accuracy of our part of the scientific record. We trust that our colleagues share these goals and understand that for us copyright has continued to be a tool for the ultimate good of our shared scientific community, and not a weapon to strip researchers of the right to disseminate their accomplishments and insights, as Professor Unruh suggests.      

Our record is strong. When the arXiv was formed APS responded positively, by integrating it into our submission process and providing a mirror site to improve service, and we have continued to collaborate with arXiv for over fifteen years. APS has been a leader in “Green” Open Access, by allowing authors to post the final APS-published version of their papers on their own and their institution’s websites, immediately upon publication. Unlike a number of other major scientific publishers, we have never had an embargo on the distribution of research results, either before or after publication.

Recent developments in online publishing raise important and legitimate copyright issues, particularly about reuse of published materials. Some of these issues have complex ramifications, and are under active discussion by the Publications Oversight Committee of APS (a volunteer committee of APS members). We thank Professor Unruh for bringing these issues to the attention of a wider audience.

Unfortunately, his presentation of these legitimate issues is muddied by a number of claims that, frankly, we find preposterous, and because many readers of APS News have transferred copyright to APS, we must comment on Unruh’s more extreme examples. The basic question is this: when you, as an author, transfer copyright to APS, what rights do you retain to reuse your article or parts of it in lectures, in other publications, and for teaching? Although our copyright agreement is relatively simple and straightforward, any legal document requires interpretation, and we provide this in a series of frequently asked questions (FAQ) on our journals website:, to which we will refer in our replies to Unruh.

Here are Unruh’s alleged examples of copyright violations, and relevant APS policy. 

UNRUH: “You grab that paper, rewrite some paragraphs from it, change a few captions or even details in the figures and send it off as a conference proceeding, signing another copyright transfer form for those publishers. ... If those actions are not specifically reserved to you in your copyright transfer agreement, you have also broken the law of copyright…”

From APS FAQ:  “…you have the right to use figures, tables, graphs, etc. in subsequent publications using files prepared and formatted by the author.” And you can, of course, restate your ideas in another publication, with appropriate citations. If in fact this restriction existed, as Unruh seems to suggest that it does, it would have brought scholarly communication to a halt long ago.

UNRUH: “You also make 30 copies of the paper to distribute to your students in your class.”

APS FAQ: “As the author of an APS published article, may I provide a PDF of my paper to a colleague or third party? The author is permitted to provide, for research purposes as long as a fee is not charged, a PDF copy of his/her article using either the APS-prepared version or the author prepared version.” An author can distribute copies of the article as needed. Third parties can use them for teaching also, but incorporation into course notes for more than one semester requires APS permission.

UNRUH: “The University of Peerdom invites you to give a talk on the work and pays you a small honorarium, or you speak at a conference that charges a conference fee and records the talks.”

APS:  APS would never consider the presentation, in a lecture or talk, of one’s own figures, tables, text, or ideas as a violation of copyright! That is how physicists communicate, and the goal of the APS is the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics.

If authors do not understand the intent of our copyright agreement, we are concerned. We accept our responsibility to make the agreement more understandable to those who sign it, and to improve it as necessary. But as we continue to consider alternatives to our current agreement, we also want to emphasize that transferring copyright to APS has advantages for authors, especially since most papers now have multiple authors representing multiple institutions, and authors frequently change institutions. In this situation, a single benevolent and enduring holder of copyright has much to offer.

The goal of APS is to protect and preserve in perpetuity the archive of research in physics. As we consider ways that we can better serve our community by changes in our copyright agreement, we welcome comments and input from all of our colleagues. 

Gene D. Sprouse, Editor in Chief, APS

Joseph W. Serene, Treasurer/Publisher, APS

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan