What's the difference between transferring copyright and granting an exclusive license to publish?

+4 votes
asked Dec 23, 2015 in Open Science by dhimmel (265 points)

Subscription publishers traditionally require authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement (CTA). The CTA transfers copyright ownership from the author to the journal. Usually the agreement will specify certain non-exclusive rights that the authors retain.

Now, many publishers seem to be adopting license to publish (LtP) agreements. These agreements give the publisher the exclusive right to reproduce and publish the work. Functionally, an exclusive LtP seems equivalent to a CTA. A previous Q&A regarding the ACM, which let authors choose between a CTA and LtP, didn't identify any meaningful differences.

Without specifying any functional differences, some publishers have been advertising their LtPs as a more equitable arrangement than CTAs. For example, Science states:

As part of our mission, AAAS seeks to enhance communication among scientists, engineers, and the public, worldwide. Toward that end, AAAS does not require a copyright transfer from authors. Instead, authors are asked to grant AAAS an exclusive license to publish their work.

And Oxford University Press states (unclear whether this comment is juxtaposing LtPs with CTAs):

It is a condition of publication that authors grant an exclusive licence to Oxford Journals or the society of ownership. This ensures that requests from third parties to reproduce articles are handled efficiently and consistently, and will also allow the article to be as widely disseminated as possible.

As a content creator, is there anything preferable about granting a publisher an exclusive LtP rather than transferring copyright? Are there any differences?

1 Answer

+2 votes
answered Jan 10, 2016 by ArtOfCode (90 points)

TL;DR: Copyright transfer changes the ownership, license grant grants rights over the work.

Copyright transfer is a legal agreement between the owner of the work and another party, wherein the two agree to re-assign the ownership to the second party. In publishing, this is rarely used (the author usually retains the ownership). Were it used, it would mean that a publisher takes ownership of the work, and can then do as they want with it.

Licensing is the more common method of getting work published. Instead of transferring your ownership over your work to the publisher, you instead grant them a license (which may be exclusive - doesn't have to be) that says they can use your work to the extent necessary to get it published without legal repercussions under copyright law.

commented Jan 11, 2016 by dhimmel (265 points)
Thanks for explaining the technical distinction. However, since copyright is itself an exclusive right to use and distribute, licenses granting exclusive usage and distribution seem to functionally be the same as a copyright transfer.
commented Jan 11, 2016 by ArtOfCode (90 points)
edited Apr 13, 2016 by ArtOfCode
@dhimmel Nearly, except a transfer has on party keeping the copyright, and a license has one party with copyright, and one party with some rights. The second party can't grant licenses, for example.
commented Nov 24, 2016 by Marc Couture (55 points)
@ArtOfCode Contrary to what the last part of your answer suggests, an exclusive licence can include the right for the licensee to grant rights to third parties. See, for instance, Elsevier's exclusive licence (https://www.elsevier.com/about/company-information/policies/copyright, section Rights Granted to Elsevier). And Elsevier is not the only publisher offering a choice between a full copyright transfer and an exclusive licence that effectively transfers all relevant rights, leaving the author with a symbolic copyright ownership, stripped of all its properties.
commented Dec 27, 2016 by dhimmel (265 points)
In a discussion about preprint licensing (http://blog.dhimmel.com/biorxiv-licenses/#comment-3062900800), an important distinction between copyright transfer and licenses to publish was brought up. In the case where an author has previously published a preprint under an open license, they are still able transfer copyright. However, they may not be able to grant an exclusive license to publish.

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