Every now and then, a journal retracts a paper for some reason or another. I'm wondering what impact retraction has on copyright, assuming the journal (or its publisher) was given its copyright.

Question: Does a journal retracting a paper also renounce copyright?

The notion of "retracting" a paper implies "we don't want it" to some extent (particularly if it is a journal-initiated retraction), which I feel may be interpreted as renouncing copyright altogether.

  • In general (i.e. when considering non-US jurisdictions), copyright may not even be possible to renounce. Take Germany for example. – Kevin Nov 12 at 20:58
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    When, e.g., a book publisher wants to let a book go out of print, and they own the copyright, typically they don't renounce the copyright (which may not even be possible). They would be more likely to let it revert to the author, and this would typically be stated explicitly in the contract. That way the author can try to find a new publisher, or self-publish or put it on the internet if they wish. I don't know if this situation is at all analogous. – Ben Crowell Nov 12 at 23:49
  • @BenCrowell I don't think it is, because publishers still distribute retracted papers - often behind the usual paywalls. – Anyon Nov 13 at 3:20
  • @Kevin It’s more subtle than that because the concept of copyright does not map directly to German law: Urheberrecht (= authorship) cannot be renounced or transferred, but the journal doesn’t have that in any case; it merely has exclusive or non-exclusive publication rights. And the journal is entirely within its right to renounce its publication rights. – Konrad Rudolph Nov 13 at 11:39
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    Technically there is also the strange case of plagiarism. Say Bob copies Alice's work and submits it und his own name. If he is found out after acceptance, the journal will have to retract it, but has no copyright to renounce in the first place, since Alice never transferred any to them... – mlk Nov 13 at 14:01

Good question. As far as I can tell, the answer is "no" and the journal retracting the paper still retains copyright (if it was given the copyright in the first place).

Here're some retraction policies: one, two, three. Although the question you ask is not discussed, two things can be noted:

  • Even if a paper is retracted, the publisher still distributes it (as in, it's still available from the journal's website). What changes is that the publisher makes it clear that the article is retracted.
  • The publisher only stops distributing the paper if they are legally obliged to do so (e.g. if the copyright is actually held by someone other than the authors, and the authors had no legal standing to sign the copyright to the publisher).

Since the publisher needs the copyright (or permission from the copyright holder) to distribute the paper, the logical answer is "no".

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    Quick clarification on the last sentence. The publisher needs the copyright or authorization from the party who has it. (This is why some publishers can get away with not taking copyright in the first place. As part of the submission process you sign agreements to give them the rights to distribute.) – R.M. Nov 12 at 14:05
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    The publisher absolutely does not need the copyright to distribute the paper. They merely need the permission of the copyright holder, which is much easier if that means "they merely need their own permission." – David Richerby Nov 12 at 14:05
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    @DavidRicherby Absolutely correct, though its noteworthy that type of permission is almost always referred to as a license. – TimothyAWiseman Nov 12 at 18:27

Not automatically. Assuming this is a journal where authors assign them copyright, then the author has signed over the copyright and the article "belongs" to the publisher now. Whether they choose to publish it, retract it, or make and market paper aeroplanes from it is none of the author's concern.

However, copyright transfer agreements sometimes (usually?) have a clause stating that if the journal doesn't publish it, copyright will revert to the author. I'm not sure whether that would apply in the event of a retraction, but the only way to tell would be to check the wording of that agreement.

Disclaimer: IANAL, and this is not legal advice.

In general, no, but there is a lot of nuance to the question.

First, you did not specify your jurisdiction. While many international treaties provide a degree of uniformity to copyright questions, there are significant differences between jurisdictions. For example, the U.S. is notorious for having very limited and weak "Moral Rights" while they are quite strong and significant in Canada. I am not actually aware of any differences in any jurisdiction that will make the answer to this question differ, but I cannot guarantee they do not exist. The best advice is that if you face this question in a way that will have real consequences, you should consult a qualified attorney in the jurisdiction in question

With that said, nothing about retraction inherently relinquishes copyrights. In fact, under most circumstances, the copyright holder may elect to not publish something while still forbidding any others from publishing. In other words, a copyright holder may choose to use copyright to prevent any publication.

However, this ultimately comes down to the contracts and specific statements involved. While I haven't ever seen this happen, a publisher could elect to disavow copyright (or release to the public domain) at the same time as they retract.

Its also possible that the publication never held the copyright at all, but only held a license to distribute. This is in fact what I granted with my last publication rather than a transfer of the copyright.

Even if the copyright is transferred to the publishers, there may be a clause that transfers it back if it is not published within the specified time or is withdrawn within that time (2 years is common).

TLDR: Retraction does not by itself change the copyright and it is likely the publisher either continues to retain the copyright or an exclusive license to the article. But that is a rule of thumb rather than an absolute and you will have to evaluate the circumstances around any particular article individually.

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    +1; I've taken the liberty to correct what looked like typos. – darij grinberg Nov 12 at 22:53
  • @darijgrinberg Thank you. – TimothyAWiseman Nov 12 at 22:55

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