Within the debate of whether science should move to an Open Access / CC-license scheme, or remain with a more traditional scheme where the authors transfer copyright to the publisher, one argument that gets made relatively often is that the latter provides a better defence against copyright breaches. I would like to know how much this argument actually works in favour of the author.

One good example of this argument is made in the position paper Publishers seek copyright transfers (or transfers or licenses of exclusive rights) to ensure proper administration & enforcement of author rights, by the STM Association, which states among other points that

In general, publishers in the field of science, technology and medicine (STM) prefer assignments over licences, mainly because:

  • authors are rarely in a position to defend themselves against infringers, plagiarists, pirates and free-riders, partly due to financial considerations; [...]

Thus, an assignment enables the publisher: [...]

  • to react more rapidly to copyright infringements, unauthorised derivatives and plagiarism;

This position is endorsed, for example, by the IOP, in their Introduction to Copyright leaflet.

However, this argument only works in as much as the interests of the publisher and the author are aligned, which is not necessarily the case.

  • For one, it may be in the publisher's interest to stop copyright violations agreed to, or initiated, by the author, as in the Elsevier takedown notices to academia.edu last december. (Note, though, that I am not claiming these are wrong or that it is right for authors to violate agreements they have signed.)

  • On the other hand, if a copyright violation occurs and the author objects to it, it may or may not be a good business case for the publisher to take legal action against it, and the sort of outcomes that will be acceptable to the publisher may not be in line with what the author needs.

Dealing with bad-faith copyright violations is definitely a problem and Open Access is not ideally equipped to deal with them. (That is: if someone brazenly republishes in violation of a CC license (i.e. lack of attribution, unendorsed+unlabelled modifications, commercial use of a CC-BY-NC article, or such), how can the author sue?) However, it's not clear to me that the alternative does work in the interest of the author.

So, my question is: do any scientific publishers have stated policies about their actions in the case of copyright violations, or stated commitments to authors regarding this? It would seem a fair counterpart of the publishing contract, where the author hands over the rights of the text in return for a commitment to disseminate and defend it, but this is not usually how the scientific publishing business works in my experience.

Failing that, I would be interested in evidence, either public, statistical or anecdotal, about publishers' behaviour in such cases, though I know these are not easy to come by.

  • 1
    This is not really germane to your question, but in the case you mention in your third-to-last paragraph, it seemed that the issue was actually that the republication did not violate the CC license (but maybe the author wasn't aware that was the case, and if she had thought more carefully, would rather have published under a license that did not allow such republication). Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 14:29
  • @Nate I know that case is complicated, but the licence violations I do think may have happened are improper attribution (i.e. lack of citation and licencing status in a publicly-available TOC) and unendorsed modifications. In any case, and regardless of whether they happened in that case, the question stands: if such licence violations do happen, what recourse do authors have to defend their IP and moral rights? And, conversely, (my question here,) does switching to traditional publishing offer a guarantee against that?
    – E.P.
    Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 15:32
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    @E.P. but that case is not complicated--it is simply a case of authors not understanding the terms of the license. It is explicitly stated in plain language--not complex legalese--that commercial derivatives can be made. And this is to the advantage of the author because it means that if you're making, say, a reasonably priced textbook you can put it in there without chasing down the author for permission (it was already granted in CC-BY), thus the author gets more exposure. If it bothers the author that it also licenses it for an unreasonably priced text, CC-BY is not for them, period.
    – msouth
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 6:12
  • @msouth I'm taking the reference out because it just clouds this issue. I agree that the authors' reaction was overblown and they should have read and understood the license in the first place. Have you actually looked at the book, though? There is no attribution of the journals where most (all?) of the contained articles appeared. There are also editorial changes w.r.t. the author-sanctioned versions, as I understand it, which are not clearly labeled as such.
    – E.P.
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 10:34
  • 3
    @Aubrey the situation for CC papers is complicated but it is not the question I'm asking here. Timestamps are great if you go to court but doing so is expensive and time-consuming. Publishers claim that their institutional clout can make that easier; the question is whether it does in practice and how formally committed they are to that defense.
    – E.P.
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 23:17

1 Answer 1


Since you also ask for anecdotal evidence, I have a first hand experience with a commercial publisher (Wolters Kluwer) that reacted quickly and professionally to my message reporting prohibited commercial use of my work. This particular journal gives free access to articles after a one year embargo.

An internet magazine based in India copied verbatim large parts of the introduction and abstract of one of my papers with some words in between to try to make it look like an original journalistic report. The 'article' was available for a fee.

Since I formally transferred my rights to the publisher in the author agreement, I really only reported the issue out of interest for the outcome. They took contact with the 'company' that subsequently retracted the content from their website.

I suspect established publishers like Wolters Kluwer have significantly more legal firepower than a one-person operation run from an internet cafe in Hyderabad.

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    Out of curiosity, how well was your original paper referenced in this 'report'?
    – E.P.
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 9:23
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    @E.P. there was no mention of my paper in the freely-available 'preview' in which I found the lifted paragraphs. I obviously did not purchase the full article (I doubt that there was even one).
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 9:46

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