When a research paper's term of copyright ends, say, N years after publication, does the publication house have to make it freely (i.e. no cost) available for use by general public? Assume that currently it's charging some money to download papers.

  • Guessing the motivation behind your question: If you (legally) want to obtain a copy of a paper, you might want to ask for ways to do this here (at least in a quick search I have not found that it has been asked yet).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 16:13
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    @Wrzlprmft sorry I don't have that motivation. I am simply trying to think for the far future :)
    – user13107
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 16:16
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    There's no difference between research papers and any other copyrighted work. Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 20:09
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    What kind of obligations are you asking about? Legal obligations? Moral obligations? If legal, in what jurisdiction, and what does the contract with the authors say? The answer to your question is almost certainly going to be "no, of course not, not unless it made some promises to that extent -- why would it have any obligation?".
    – D.W.
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 22:43

1 Answer 1


No, why should it? Running out of copyright explicitly means a loss of a right. It does not mean the beginning of any additional obligation.

Running out of copyright, however, means that anybody who already owns a copy may duplicate it and make it available under any conditions he chooses (including making it available free of charge). Many university libraries do this.

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    That does not change anything. They do not have an obligation to give you a copy. Actually, they do not even have to do so while they have the copyright. Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 15:48
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    @user13107: That’s one of the reasons, why national libraries exist. Though, if a publisher was any good, there will be numerous libraries holding copies.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 15:54
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    Theoretically yes, but not practically. Each scientific journal is subscribed to and archived by hundreds of libraries. A publication has to be extremely insignificant for libraries to not archive it. In that case, the publication probably deserves to be unobtainable. Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 15:55
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    That's a slightly different situation. I suppose, libraries will not archive those digital subscriptions. However, in those cases the subscription is not based on "delivery of X physical journals per years", but usually rather "guaranteed access to all publications of type Y since year Z". In this case, the publisher has a contractual obligation to give the subscribers access to the publication no matter what the copyright status. Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 16:16
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    @user13107 That is what systems like LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) are for: distributed digital archives. A significant fraction of university libraries and publishers are already participating, so that access to articles is not interrupted if a publisher goes under.
    – Mangara
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 17:07

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