Suppose I've put a PDF with an paper or treatise I've written, but not yet properly published, somewhere online. This place is not some document repository or a site that has some specific copyright assignment/assumption policy; suppose it's just a lowly HTTP server: http://some.where.org/foo.pdf . Suppose also that a link to it gets to some person with whom I've not made any explicit or implicit agreements regarding use of this work.

What are people allows or not allowed to do by US, EU and/or international copyright law?

  • Are people allowed to make online copies?
  • Are people allowed to make hard copies? Circulate hard copies? Publish hard copies?
  • Can people produce derivative work (e.g. applying the same ideas in some other context) and publish it, at all?
  • Must people credit me as the author, or can they just use the contents and forget about the author?
  • Are there any special restrictions if I mark my paper as a "Draft"?

Note: It's not that I want to prevent any of those things from happening, necessarily - I'm just asking about the defaults.

  • 2
    No, no, depends on what you mean by "derivative" but in general no, yes, no. As a matter of course you automatically hold the copyright of any work you create and unless you've specifically granted some rights to someone, they don't have any. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright
    – user9646
    Jan 4, 2018 at 12:36
  • If your goal is further formal publication, read that publisher's guidelines. Many support so-called self-archival (putting it on a personal webpage), many impose an embargo on publishing final versions to the repositories. (And it depends what's final – the accepted or the completely typesetted version, for example.) It varies from publisher to publisher. There is also open access. Jan 5, 2018 at 1:35

2 Answers 2


In most (possibly all) jurisdictions, the default for a creative artifact with no license information attached is that it assumed to be all rights reserved. In other words, another person cannot do much of anything with it besides look at it.

See, for example, GitHub's information about "no license" licensing. They are talking about code, but the default they mention is general.

Note that there are certainly categories of work for which this does not apply (for example, recipes are specifically not protected under US copyright law), but it most certainly applies for any substantial paper draft.

  • In all jurisdictions I am aware of, at least "private use" (saving the pdf to your hard drive, printing it out to read yourself) is allowed through some manner of exception from copyright law. I guess this would still fit under a generous definition of "look at it"...
    – nengel
    Jan 4, 2018 at 14:43
  • 2
    If you care about the copyright status of material you put on line, add a copyright notice. Although it doesn't confer any additional legal protection, it puts people on notice that you do care. Conversely, if you intend that others use your work, use one of the Creative commons notices or similar to express your expectations.
    – Bob Brown
    Jan 4, 2018 at 14:45

The default, for any creative work, is that it is protected by copyright. Your paper would have the same status as any other work protected by copyright; essentially it would enjoy the same protection as a TV show, newspaper article or a college textbook.

It would not be legal to republish the paper on another website. However, linking to or embedding it would be allowed in the EU.

Making physical hard copies would in principle also not be legal, but there are various fair use exceptions (e.g., I would be allowed to print a copy the paper for my personal use, and use in education could in some circumstances also be considered fair use).

Can people produce derivative work (e.g. applying the same ideas in some other context) and publish it, at all?

"Applying the same ideas in some other context" is not a derivative work in the sense meant in copyright law. Copyright only protects expressions of ideas (e.g., the phrasing you used in your paper to describe the idea), but not the ideas themselves. If you published a paper on, say, techniques to design more aerodynamic airplane wings, then it would be perfectly legal for someone to build (and sell) airplanes based on your techniques, but it would not be legal for them to include your paper verbatim as a chapter in a book on airplane design.

There is no way to protect "ideas". If your paper contains a solution to a technical problem, then you might be able to obtain a patent for it (e.g., a better design for an airplane wing would be patentable material). However, unlike copyright, patents aren't automatic and are also very expensive to obtain and defend.

Must people credit me as the author, or can they just use the contents and forget about the author?

If people use your work in a way that is either permitted by fair use or simply isn't prohibited by copyright in the first place, then there is no legal requirement that they credit you.

Are there any special restrictions if I mark my paper as a "Draft"?

Marking your paper as a "draft" just informs other people that it is a draft, but it doesn't have any legal significance.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer; I'll just mention that I don't actually want to prevent use of my draft, it's just an informative question.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 4, 2018 at 14:10

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