Knowledge is valuable. Researchers build on established knowledge and on the research results and thoughts that are communicated by peers. An intrinsic part of being a researcher is publishing and disseminating your own work. This also involves questions of authorship and rights.

An academic author should know:

  • how work is protected by copyright
  • what it means to assign or transfer copyright to others
  • how to avoid infringement of other author’s copyright

Authorship and copyright

According to copyright law the basic criteria for claiming copyright protection of your work are:

  1. The work has to be scientific, literary or artistic: Examples are a book, a thesis, an article or a painting. However, public documents are not protected by copyright.
  2. The work has to be original and creative. You cannot copy the whole or parts of somebody else’s work and use it as your own.
  3. The work has to be fixed in some form, such as in writing, an illustration, a figure etc. Copyright protects the expression, and not the idea itself.

When a work is created, the creator automatically gets copyright. There are no requirements of registration or marking of the work.

You have to contribute to the expression of the work to claim authorship. The author must make a substantial contribution to the actual writing of a text; contribution in other manners does not count as authorship according to copyright law.

In some instances you do not have economic rights to the work. This means that you do not always retain the exclusive rights of the copyright holder, which include:

  • reproduction, e.g. paper copying or digital archiving
  • distribution, e.g. sending a document to others through e-mail
  • public performance, e.g. presenting parts of a paper at a conference
  • communication to the public, e.g. posting an article on the Internet
  • transformation, e.g. a translation of a book

These rights depend on:

  • The transfer of rights by contract: Work performed in an employment relationship or signed away to a publisher, e.g. you have a clause in your employment contract saying your PhD thesis has to be made available in the institutional repository or your funding organisation has an Open Access policy, included in their contract, stating that your work has to be made freely available online.
  • The term of copyright: Usually the term of copyright lasts 50 or 70 years after the year of death of the last author of the work. After this period the work falls into the public domain – it is free to use by anyone (but you still have to acknowledge the author).
  • The transfer of rights by inheritance: If the author dies, the rights to reuse the work might pass on to relatives, as long as the work has not yet fallen into the public domain.

Copyright, moral right and ethics

You always keep your moral rights, like being acknowledged, when signing over your copyright to others. For most academic authors the moral rights are often the most valuable rights. Knowledge is created by authors building on other authors work, and by being cited, authors get known and recognised. Using another author’s thoughts or ideas whithout giving credit is plagiarism.

Ethics involves both respecting copyright and moral right. Moral rights go beyond copyright. Ethical issues in the publication of research include: co-authorship, self-citation, privacy, collecting and preserving data in a secure way.

Copyright policies

A publisher or a journal often requires that you transfer your copyright to them. Open access policies or clauses in your employment contract or funding agreements could prohibit full transfer of copyright. You may have to modify the terms of copyright in the publishing agreement.

If you transfer your copyright to your article to the journal:

  • Can you post the article on your own website?
  • Can you present the article at a conference?
  • Can you publish your article together with the rest of your PhD in a book?

Different publishers offer different terms and conditions. If keeping the rights to reuse your work is valuable to you, choose a journal for publishing your work that has a copyright policy suitable to your requirements.

Find a journal’s policy on copyright

You can consult the SHERPA/RoMEO database of publishers’ policies on copyright

A further possiblity is to negotiate the publishing agreement. Some higher education institutions offer help in this matter. If your employer or funding organisation has included copyright terms in their contracts that limit your copyright, this could mean that you have to negotiate the terms of copyright with the publisher or the journal.

Find out more about negotiating a publishing agreement

These resources offer information and documents to help you to make an effective request to negotiate a reasonable publishing agreement:

How to protect your copyright

Marking your work with a licence is useful if you want to give the user of the work more rights, or just remind the user of your rights. If you actively use social media for disseminating your research, this could be a wise thing to consider when putting your work online.

Patent protection may also lead to considerations you will have to take with regard to sharing your work. For instance discussing and disseminating research in print or orally can lead to refusal of a patent application. This will not be discussed further here.

One way of marking your work is by a Creative Commons licence. Creative Commons is an organisation that enables the sharing and use of creative, literary and scientific work through free legal tools.

Creative Commons licences

Visit the Creative Commons page for choosing the proper licence, or read more about the different licenses defined by the organisation:

  • Attribution CC BY – Lets others distribute, remix, tweak and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use.
  • Attribution Share Alike CC BY-SA – Lets others remix, tweak and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under identical terms. All new works based on yours will carry the same licence, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.
  • Attribution No Derivs CC BY-ND – Allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, of your work as long as it is passed on unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
  • Attribution Non Commercial CC BY-NC – Lets others remix, tweak and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they do not have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
  • Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike CC BY-NC-SA – Lets others remix, tweak and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under identical terms.
  • Attribution Non Commercial No Derivs CC BY-NC-ND – The most restrictive of the licences, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can not change them in any way or use them commercially.

Most Open Access publishers use the CC BY licence, which allows maximum dissemination.

If violated – what to do?

Your material has been used in contravention of your copyright, e.g. someone has used your work and has not attributed it to you.

Contact the violator and find out if he or she is willing to withdraw or change the work according to what is right. If not, as a last resort: make a formal legal complaint in the court system.

Model letter for contacting a violator of your copyright

Here you will find an example of a letter you can write if your copyright is violated.

[Your name, and contact information (indicate how you are most easily contacted)] Today’s date

[Name and contact information of the copyright infringer or the publisher of the work in which the copyrighted material is misused]

Dear [name]

It has come to my attention that you have used some of my material in contravention of my copyright. The material in question is:

[Give a full citation, a description of the material and where it is published]

[Give a description of why the use is an infringement of your copyright. Example: According to copyright laws I have the exclusive right to make this image available to the public. Reusing the image online is not allowed, even if you give a citation back to my work. These rules are strict when it comes to making works like images, illustrations etc. electronically available. If you need further details on this matter, do not hesitate to contact me by e-mail, [e-mail address]]

To avoid further action, please perform/execute one of the following measures/steps [depending on the material in question, remove text that is not appropriate].

          Remove the material in question from your publication

          Add a proper citation

          Give a proper correction notice in the next issue of the journal

          [If used commercially, or removal of the material is impossible, this could be an option] Pay compensation [to my bankaccount xxx]

I would greatly appreciate a quick response on how you will act, and if you have not answered by [set a date you think appropriate] further action will be initiated. Eventually, court action may be a solution. I would also like to be notified when the measures have been taken.


Using other people’s work

Does anyone else hold copyright to material you are going to publish in your work? Be especially aware of pictures, illustrations, tables etc. made by others that you are going to publish on the Internet, since you may have to seek permission from the copyright owner. Often citation and acknowledgement are enough, but if you do not have the right to reproduce a work, you have to seek permission. This could be from the author, a journal, a publisher or another rights holder that has been assigned the rights. If the work has fallen into the public domain, the work is free to use, but you still have to acknowledge the creator. Authors are required to follow copyright laws that apply in the country in which the copyright protected material is used.

How to obtain permission?

Some publishers or journals have copyright clearing centres or similar arrangements, and some electronic journals even offer clearance directly from the article’s webpage. Check out the actual work you want to use; if it is posted online, copyright clearing features may be included.

A so-called extended collective licence could also exist for the material you want to use. This means that an organisation has cleared the rights for specific copyrighted material. Then you do not have to clear copyright permission.

If such a licence does not exist, you should in general clear copyright through one of these rights management organisations. If the author is from outside your country, you should contact the rights management organisation(s) there. If such an organisation does not exist (or the organisation says you should contact the copyright holder) you must contact the copyright holder directly.

Contact the copyright holder and state what kind of publication you will use the material in, where it will be published, what publisher will publish it, and whether it is for commercial sale.

Model letter for requesting permission to use copyrighted material

Here you will find an example of a letter you can write if you want permission to use material which is protected by copyright.

[Your name, and contact information (indicate how you are most easily contacted)] Today’s date

[Name and contact information of the copyright holder, e.g. a publisher, a journal or the author]

 Dear [name]

I am currently writing my PhD thesis at [your institution] and want to publish [example: an article in journal xxx, published both in print and online, or example: an article on this blog xxx, link to webpage]. I am requesting permission to include the following material in this publication:

[Add full citation, to clearly identify what you will be using]

[Briefly describe your work and add something about why you want to use the work, so that the copyright holder understands in which context the material will be used.]

To my knowledge you hold the copyright to [this illustration, figure…]. If you do not hold the right, please inform me of the correct copyright holder and provide me with the necessary contact information.

The permission will only cover non-commercial use of the work as described here, and the work will be properly cited.

To grant me the permission, please fill in the information indicated below, and send me a copy, by post/scanned by e-mail/by fax. Do not hesitate to contact me by e-mail [e-mail address] if you feel additional information is needed.

Your permission will be greatly appreciated.



Permission to use [citation] is hereby granted:

Date, place and signature:

Full name, title/position/role



Clara. (2011). Copyright management in Norway. The Clara Association.

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