This post is part three of a series covering topics found in the research guide Navigating the Article Publication Process.

What are my rights as an author?

As an author of an article, you are given certain rights under U.S. copyright law. In this blog post we will discuss what it means to be the author of a work and the full scope of rights that authors have in the works they create.

Who is an author under U.S. copyright law?

In the United States, original works of authorship receive copyright protection as soon as they are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Articles, books, and other scholarly publications are all examples of literary works that can receive copyright protection the moment they are written or otherwise captured in fixed form. Formal publication is not required for copyright protection.

Generally, the author or creator of a work is considered the initial copyright owner of the work. And under the law, authors are given a bundle of exclusive rights in their work. It is up to the authors to then decide if they would like to retain or transfer those rights.

An important exception to this default rule, however, is for works made for hire. A work made for hire can either be:

(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of their employment, or

(2) a specially ordered or commissioned work that falls into one of a limited number of permissible categories, and under which both parties agree in writing that the work is to be considered a work made for hire.

In the case of a work made for hire, it is the employer or the party that commissioned the work that is considered the author of the work. As the author of the work, the employer or commissioning party would hold the exclusive rights as copyright owners.

Copyright can be transferred over time, so the initial author of a work may not be the current rightsholder. This transfer may occur, for example, under the terms of a publishing agreement. It is not uncommon to see publishing agreements that ask for the author of the article to transfer some or all of their rights to the publisher.

Copyright ownership and norms around authorship may be further impacted by institutional policies. Finally, The Ohio State University Authorship Guidelines provide additional aid in defining rights, responsibilities, roles, and order of authorship.

Copyright ownership under the OSU Intellectual Property Policy

The Ohio State University, like many other institutions, has an institutional policy that further clarifies copyright ownership for works created by OSU students and employees. The Ohio State University Intellectual Property Policy establishes rules on ownership based on your specific affiliation with the university (faculty, staff, or student) and the type of work you’ve created (including Instructional Works, Scholarly Works, and Artistic Works).

In general, the university does not claim copyright in Scholarly Works of faculty members, including scholarly publications, journal articles, and books. Students retain copyright in copyrighted materials that they author in a student (non-employee) capacity, such as a thesis or dissertation. And generally, copyrighted materials created by staff within the scope of their employment are owned by the university, which aligns with the work made for hire doctrine discussed earlier.

Accompanying the policy is a FAQ and interactive tool to assist in answering ownership questions.

What rights does an author have?

The automatic exclusive rights granted to an author under copyright law allow the author to do or authorize any of the following:

  1. Reproduce the work;
  2. Prepare derivatives of the work;
  3. Distribute copies of the work to the public;
  4. Publicly perform the work;
  5. Publicly display the work;
  6. And in the case of sound recordings, publicly perform the work by means of digital audio transmission

These rights are not unlimited—there are many important exceptions in the law that permit certain uses of copyright protected works—but they give authors a lot of power to control how their work is being used. When it comes time to sign a publishing agreement, you may be asked to transfer in writing some or all of these rights to the publisher. Before signing, be sure to read your full agreement to understand how your rights may be impacted under the terms of your publishing agreement. Reading and understanding your agreement will allow you to identify terms you may wish to negotiate with your publisher. In our next blog post, we will review some common terms in publication agreements and what they might mean for you as an author.


Do you have questions about author rights under U.S. copyright law? Copyright Services offers weekly consultation hours through Research Commons. More information on copyright can be found at the Copyright Services website.