Unintentional copyright infringement by an author: A case study

Unintentional copyright infringement by an author: A case study

Case: An author’s manuscript was accepted by a journal. The article was a short opinion piece, and the journal had agreed to make it open access upon publication. Excited about the acceptance, the author shared the article on his blog. A few days later, however, the journal editor wrote to the author that his article would not be published as the journal’s copyright agreement had been breached. The author was surprised and confused as he was under the impression that open access articles were not copyrighted by the journal. He turned to Editage Insights for advice.

Action: On going through the journal website we found that it was a hybrid journal with some articles made freely available while others were accessible only through subscription. Additionally, the journal’s copyright policies were clearly mentioned on the website.

On questioning the author, we found that he had not gone through the journal website in detail. The blog post in which he had shared the article mentioned the journal's name and the fact that the article had been accepted for publication. This definitely was a breach of the copyright agreement, although unintentional. We asked the author to remove the article from his blog immediately. 

We also explained the meaning of the journal’s copyright policy to the author and pointed out the mistakes he had made. Firstly, he should not have shared the article before it was published. Secondly, he should have read the journal policies carefully before submission. Even if he were to share it on his blog after publication, he could either have just shared the link to the online version of the article or would have had to take prior permission from the journal.

We advised the author to write an apology email to the editor, stating that he had removed the article from his blog. We asked him to explain that the copyright breach was unintentional and had happened due to lack of awareness on his part. The author wrote to the editor, but the editor replied that she would have to discuss the matter with the editorial board before coming to a decision.

After some delay and several email exchanges, the editorial board finally agreed to publish the article. However, he was warned that if this behavior was repeated, strict action would be taken against him.

Summary: Copyright policies vary across journals. Most traditional closed access or subscription based journals have a copyright policy by which authors consent to give exclusive rights to the journal to publish and represent the manuscript. Open access journals generally seek a non-exclusive license from the author to publish and do not require an assignment of copyright to the journal. However, not all open access journals follow this system. Some OA journals still have a copyright transfer policy. For hybrid journals, there is no uniform system: some allow authors to retain copyright for articles that are open access, while others want authors to transfer copyright even for open access articles. For journals that require copyright transfer, authors have to take the journal’s permission for each subsequent use of the article. This is generally mentioned in the journal’s website and authors have to sign a copyright transfer agreement soon after acceptance of the paper.

Authors should read the copyright and usage policies mentioned on the journal’s website before submission and should abide by all terms and conditions mentioned. In case they are unable to understand the policy completely, it is best to ask the editor if permission is required before sharing the article. Copyright infringement is a legal issue and although such disputes are sometimes resolved through direct negotiation, they can involve legal notices or other forms of litigation or punishment in extreme cases.  

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