I work for a company in the medical sector that, among other things, conducts literature searches and submits them to regulators for approval prior to product launch. The company currently pays for most articles and I was wondering:

  1. If the authors are approached by employees and in turn send over free copies of their paper, can the company get in legal trouble if it uses the free copy for commercial purposes?
  2. Does it make a difference if the author need not be directly approached but freely shares their paper on their own website or in sites like ResearchGate?

EDIT: I should point out that I will definitely not take advice here and apply it without legal consult - my objective with asking this question is merely to rule in the plausibility of such an approach to acquiring access to scientific literature based on other researchers' shared experiences.

  • 6
    If I worked for the company, I would make sure that all materials were sourced through the copyright portal we had a contract with. You say it is a medical regulatory field, so, really, the dollars/Euros/whatnot are peanuts. If you get a copy directly from the author and wish to use it for company purposes, get another copy through your standard process. As one further twist, where I work the articles we don't have direct access to come with a cover page that notes it is for 'Internal Business Use Only' - so, not for submission to another body.
    – Jon Custer
    May 4, 2022 at 13:25
  • 1
    @JonCuster So it's a non-starter - thank you for your input! May 4, 2022 at 15:17
  • "The company currently pays for most articles" I do not believe you have this right. The company pays for a bundle of subscriptions, which is not quite the same as paying for individual articles. May 5, 2022 at 3:01
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist Maybe some companies...but in my brief corporate life, yeah, the company bought individual articles. No one was selling bundled subscriptions in a sufficiently narrow/targeted way to make any sense to a corporate customer - those subscriptions are for academic customers whose readers have very broad interests as a collective. Let's say an article costs $50 to access, 2 employees cost $100k each; that's 4000 articles. No pharma company is going to blink at that.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 5, 2022 at 3:33
  • @BryanKrause "sufficiently narrow/targeted way to make any sense to a corporate customer" Are any of these companies familiar? Their activities are certainly not narrow. companiesmarketcap.com/biotech/largest-companies-by-market-cap May 5, 2022 at 13:06

2 Answers 2


As a company, you may want to consult a lawyer rather than collect opinions of random people on the internet (and IANAL, btw). Also, I am not sure the language in your question is precise enough. The copies that authors have are not "free", they can be used free of charge for particular purpose(s). Similarly, the copies made available via websites such as RG or personal pages, can be "freely downloaded" (meaning that there is no paywall), but it does not imply they can be freely used for any purpose imaginable. Even if you got a pdf, someone still holds the copyright and other derivative rights, and you need to carefully assess how your purposes agree with these protected rights.

In general, saying that your purposes are "commercial" may not be sufficient to make a judgement --- this is why you may need to consult a lawyer. Regulations differ from country to country and from one area to another. For example, the way how medical regulators work in the US may be completely different from how, say, Engineering patents work in India. You may want to protect yourself and your company against consequences of an ill-informed decision. If you want to save money on article fees, contact a lawyer first to make sure this is safe and won't cost your company a fortune in fines.

  • "it does not imply they can be freely used for any purpose imaginable." The question is pretty clear that the use is a "fair use" which is permitted in the USA. May 5, 2022 at 2:59
  • "cost your company a fortune in fines." This is a bit misleading. Copyright litigation is usually civil litigation. Criminal prosecution does exist, but is quite obscure. May 5, 2022 at 3:07
  • @AnonymousPhysicist If the use is definitely fair use, then there's no issue. You don't need anyone's permission so long as you can acquire a copy by any lawful method. May 5, 2022 at 3:12
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist OP never said that they are in the USA. It is not at all clear to me that their purpose falls under fair use policy in their jurisdiction. May 5, 2022 at 7:14
  • 1
    The company is EU-based but seeks to apply for FDA approval for some of its products as well. May 6, 2022 at 7:21

If the authors are approached by employees and in turn send over free copies of their paper, can the company get in legal trouble if it uses the free copy for commercial purposes?

For recent, main stream publications, the agreement between the author and the publisher allows the author to do that. Nobody will get in trouble.

Does it make a difference if the author need not be directly approached but freely shares their paper on their own website?

No. For recent, main stream publications, the author is explicitly permitted to distribute works on their own website. ResearchGate is a nuisance I won't address.

Even if the author has infringed on the publisher's copyright, simply receiving that infringing material is not a breach of the publisher's copyright. Importing might be a breach.

Do not take legal advice from people on the internet.

  • This refers to US law. May 5, 2022 at 2:59
  • 3
    IANAL but I don’t think you’re right, at least for paywalled papers. IOP states explicitly here: publishingsupport.iopscience.iop.org/author-rights-policies that sharing is restricted (in particular but not exclusively to teaching purposes). Likewise APS states here: journals.aps.org/copyrightFAQ.html#PDF that sharing pdf is also limited, this time for research purposes. It’s a stretch to suggest either apply to the OP. The copyright might not be practically enforceable, but my reading is that what the OP suggests is not in accordance with the copyright agreement. May 5, 2022 at 3:30
  • @ZeroTheHero Your own links show you are wrong. "may use all or part of the APS published article, including the APS-prepared version (e.g., the PDF from the online journal) without revision or modification, on the author's or employer's website" "authors can share a preprint of their article anywhere and at any time" I strongly disagree that the author is not conducting research. Obviously distributing a research article for people to read is distributing it for research purposes. Reading research articles is an example of research. May 5, 2022 at 13:02
  • again IANAL, and wording in this situation is essential but that company is not the one doing research inasmuch as none of the people at that company are part of a research lab; presumably none of their names appear or is likely to appear on a grant or grant proposal; rather, they are explicitly contracted out for regulatory help. So it might be legal for an author to share the paper to an MD actually doing the research (or another person doing the research), but it's not so clear to me that this extends to a company doing literature search on behalf of the researcher. (I could be wrong.) May 5, 2022 at 13:23
  • 1
    exactly. what matter is the use of the paper, and it is difficult to argue that the OP is using it for research, since this is clearly not. May 7, 2022 at 14:25

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .