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I have been contacted by a student who wants to reproduce a figure from a paper of mine in Phil Trans R Soc B (this one, in case it's pertinent) in their thesis. The paper itself is apparently not under a CCAL (I normally choose this option if it is available, but it looks like it wasn't for this one), and I can't find any record of the copyright agreement at the time - the manuscript was submitted about ten years ago.

The journal has a link to the Copyright Clearance Centre for requesting permission for reuse; I ran the form myself and it seems that the student can pay a fee to get permission from the journal to reproduce my figure. That is not my question.

My question is, how to I check whether I transferred copyright for the figure at the time? If I didn't I can presumably just send him the submission version of the figure.

I tried searching the Royal Soc website but it seems surprisingly difficult to find this (which I have noticed before with Elsevier; I think they'd rather we assume they always get the copyright).

Related: How to legally re-use images in paper and still continue to use and distribute them in slides? (but this is about a situation where the copyright transfer status is known).

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Unless the paper is open access, the publisher usually holds the copyright. This can be seen in the imprint on the first page of the paper. If it says "(c) the publisher" then the publisher holds the copyright, while if it says "(c) the authors" then it's the authors who do.

In the case of your paper though, the Royal Society's plagiarism, copyright and intellectual property page says

Authors of non open-access papers retain the copyright, but grant the Royal Society the exclusive right to edit, adapt, translate, publish, reproduce, distribute and display the article in printed, electronic or any other medium and format.

I'm no lawyer, but I take this to mean that while you cannot distribute the paper in its final form, you can distribute a single figure.

  • I thought normally the journal only held the copyright to the presentation of the content, not the content itself? Hence you're allowed to host preprints on your personal websites, etc, but not the published version. I'm just not sure how that applies to figures, even if it's true. – arboviral Mar 7 '18 at 11:53
  • Usually a figure is a sufficiently substantial piece of an article to be copyrighted together with the article. So you may only distribute it with the consent of the entity that holds the right to distribute, even if it's separate from the article. – silvado Mar 7 '18 at 22:42
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    @arboviral policies vary from publisher to publisher, but yes, my educated guess is that you're correct. You can use the figure that you have (i.e. before the publisher did anything to it), but not the figure that's in the article directly. – Allure Mar 7 '18 at 23:20
  • @arboviral Presentation vs content means something like this: if you published a graph or table of some data you collected, the publisher cannot use their copyright to prevent you from sharing the data itself. The data are the content, the graph/table is the presentation. Similarly, copyright cannot prevent you from telling other people about the conclusions of your research. However, I doubt that logic applies to sharing a preprint of a published article, nor to sharing a figure taken from it. The relationship there is more likely one of "derivative works", not content vs presentation. – David Z Apr 8 '18 at 3:33
  • I'm also suspicious of the argument in this answer that distributing a single figure is okay. I could easily see that qualifying as editing or adapting the paper, followed by distributing it, so it'd be illegal on two counts. I think it'd be better to clear this with a lawyer first. – David Z Apr 8 '18 at 3:37

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