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Let's say I create a figure. I then publish a paper that includes this figure in an open access journal where the author retains copyright to the paper and allows the journal to apply the CC-BY license to the published version of the paper. Now, I draft a new paper and want to reuse the figure and include it in the new paper. I will publish new paper in a a different journal (can be closed or open). Am I required to abide by the CC-BY license myself and include the citation to the first published version in the new paper or am I free to use the figure without citing the prior publication because I retained copyright?

The answer to this question may require knowing exactly the specific agreement I made with the publisher of the first publication. If so, let's assume MDPI is the publisher. They include this statement on their papers "© 2020 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)."

A simpler way to put this question may be: does the copyright holder have to abide by their own license?

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  • When you agreed to give the publisher a licence to publish, did the text you agreed to say whether it was an exclusive licence or a non-exclusive licence? Oct 11, 2023 at 16:54
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    I don't know what MDPI has in their agreement when you are author (never been one). All I know is what they publicly show on their website and papers. I'm asking this question because I am publishing a conference proceedings and one of the submitted papers had text and figures matches with a prior CC-BY MDPI publication from the same author.
    – moorepants
    Oct 11, 2023 at 17:48

1 Answer 1

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If you hold the copyright you can do what you wish other than restrict a license you've already given. A license is for others, not for the copyright owner.

However, you should still cite the earlier use since self-plagiarism might become an issue. Note that avoiding self plagiarism is the way an author provides full context of a creative work for readers and future users.


Edited to add, thanks to the comment of user Anyon:

Once you give a license, you no longer retain/reserve "all rights". If in the future you need to give a copyright transfer to get published elsewhere, you can only transfer the rights you still retain. That is to say that the license is still in effect after the transfer and a new owner can't cancel it. A publisher needs to be informed as part of any future transfer agreement.

That doesn't restrict what you can do with the figure, as long as you retain copyright, but it does limit the possibilities for choosing publishers that might not want to publish things they can't control to the extent they would like to.

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    It's implied by the answer, but I think it's worth making the following point explicit: When signing a license or copyright transfer agreement with the new journal one should make sure there is no conflict with the original license.
    – Anyon
    Oct 11, 2023 at 15:53
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    @Anyon, yes, the new copyright owner after a transfer needs to honor outstanding licenses. And, to do that, they need to know of their existence.
    – Buffy
    Oct 11, 2023 at 15:56
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    I think it's also important to realize that license terms can often be different, and that's no problem; the issue comes up when any claims of exclusivity are made. For example, you as the owner could certainly license a work both CC-BY-NC, and also license it to a commercial entity with terms that differ from all the terms of the CC-BY-NC license (no further distribution, no attribution, a commercial use). It could even be an exclusive license for commercial use, you just can't renege on any of the CC-BY-NC terms for someone that wants to use that license.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 11, 2023 at 16:17
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    An agreement with a publisher might both put a CC-BY license on the work and also have additional terms not related to CC-BY, like requiring that the work not be licensed to another journal. If not, the author still has those rights.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 11, 2023 at 16:19
  • I'm envisaging the most common case being something like: I publish a paper the main novel content of which is a hand calculation of an asymptotic approximation to the velocity field round a particular shape of aerofoil; in the introduction to the paper is a diagram illustrating what the aerofoil shape is and defining some algebraic symbols; six months later I submit a paper the main novel content of which is a numerical calculation of the velocity field round the same shape of aerofoil. I don't think self-plagiarism arises if I reuse the diagram. Copyright does. Oct 12, 2023 at 15:57

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