Should a scientific paper have copyright? I guess not. It seems to me that science and copyright are not compatible.

Let's say I wrote a very important paper in, say, cell biology. Suppose I have the copyright for the paper(I think so under the copyright law of the US). Then I also have the derivative-work copyright. Can I exercise the right? For example, can I refuse other people to use the original idea of my paper? Or can I forbid them using an original technical procedure described in my paper? Or what about copying graphs or figures?

  • 1
    This question came to my attention after it got several votes to close as "primarily opinion based," because the titular question has no objective answer. Instead of closing the question immediately, I tried to edit it to highlight the objective part of the question (as stated in the second half of the question body). But the OP reverted the edit, so I have voted to close instead.
    – ff524
    Feb 1, 2015 at 5:54
  • @ff524 "This question came to my attention after it got several votes to close as "primarily opinion based, because the titular question has no objective answer." You need to answer two questions before you vote to close the quesion. 1) Why do you think it has no objective answer? 2) If it has no objective answer, why it should be closed? Feb 1, 2015 at 7:33
  • I believe Pete L Clark has already answered (1); for (2), see the help center. Open-ended discussion questions are outside the scope of this site, which is limited to practical, objectively answerable questions.
    – ff524
    Feb 1, 2015 at 7:40
  • @ff524 Pete L Clark just says it's opinion based. Just saying something is true does not make it true. As for the help center, please quote the exact part. Feb 1, 2015 at 7:54
  • @ff524 Do you think this question of yours has an objective answer? academia.stackexchange.com/questions/20841/… Feb 1, 2015 at 8:00

2 Answers 2


Copyright does not protect ideas, just how they are expressed. Copying text generally violates copyright (although there are exceptions in which quoting is permitted), but copyright places no restrictions whatsoever on using ideas.

For example, can I refuse other people to use the original idea of my paper?

No, using your ideas is not enough to turn another paper into a derivative work.

Or can I forbid them using an original technical procedure described in my paper?

No, copyright is not relevant. It keeps people from copying your description of the procedure; instead, they have to rewrite it in their own words. However, copyright has nothing to do with using the procedure.

Patents could be relevant, if the technical procedure is patented, but that's completely different from copyright (and there are no automatic patents, the way people automatically get copyright). You could certainly debate whether patents are a problem for science, but this has nothing to do with copyright.

Or what about copying graphs or figures?

Copyright does prohibit reproducing graphs or figures (again with some exceptions, such as fair use in the U.S.). However, it's OK to create a different graph/figure that conveys the same information.

  • 7
    Copyright law prevents direct copying, and in fiction it covers "characters" (e.g. Harry Potter). The current law is quite effective - some argue it's too effective! But it does not present a problem for scientists who want to build on the ideas of others, because copyright does not protect scientific ideas. You certainly can re-write someone else's ideas and figures completely and use them in your paper, without violating copyright law. The closest thing to protection for those is a patent, which protect certain kinds of scientific and medical ideas, but patents also have some limitations. Jan 31, 2015 at 12:30
  • 3
    Copyright deals only with direct copying. If you steal someone else's ideas but describe them in your own words, then that's not a copyright violation. You're right that from an academic perspective, stealing ideas is worse than most copyright violations, but it's a separate issue. Jan 31, 2015 at 19:55
  • 3
    It's protecting against unauthorized copying. One can make a reasonable case that science could benefit from having fewer such restrictions (and the open access movement is taking science in that direction, by authorizing more forms of copying). However, most of the cases you discuss are unrealistic. The reason you are getting negative reactions to your questions and comments isn't that everybody thinks copyright policies in science are perfect, but rather that you seem to be trying to start arguments without actually understanding what copyright law says or allows. Jan 31, 2015 at 22:50
  • 4
    @MakotoKato What is the use of copyright for science and the science community? You are fundamentally missing the point. Intellectual property law exists, and it applies to scientific activity just like it applies to non-scientific activity; you asked a question about copyright law, and people are trying to answer that question. If you want to ask about how scientists protect and promoter ideas, you should ask another question that focuses on that.
    – jakebeal
    Feb 1, 2015 at 4:09
  • 3
    @MakotoKato Copyright law does not restrict the use of scientific facts.
    – jakebeal
    Feb 1, 2015 at 15:09

I really do not understand this purpose of your question. Do you want to copy verbatim from someone else? Do you want to forbid other from expanding your work presented in one of your papers? Both these have easy answers. In case 1, do not do it. In case 2, do not publish a paper. Then your idea will be all yours for ever (unless someone else publishes the same idea before you and then you lose). Publishing papers is about sharing results and ideas. Everyone can then expand those ideas as they wish. For protecting novel ideas there are patents and publishing scientific papers is not the way to do it.

You also forget what citation is all about. I can say in my paper a short summary (in my own words) of what you first told in your paper in my related work section if I cite you. I can refer to your results if I cite you. I can compare my results against yours (including those presented in your figures), if I cite you. I can expand your results if I implement your method and improve it significantly, if I cite you. All these are fair uses of your scientific work. If you do not want any of these, do not publish a scientific paper.

UPDATE: The tone of my answer is a bit hostile but two questions on the same day, one basically defending H. Obokata and the other one basically suggesting copyrighting ideas on scientific papers (most probably for profit or fame) shows a complete misunderstanding on how science and scientific publications are supposed to work. In that case, it is better for people (including the OP) to stay as far away as possible from things they do not really understand or "get".

  • "In case 1, do not do it." That's fine with me(who is the imaginary person I'm pretending to be in the question). My paper, which is very important for the scientific community, was written in handwriting. The content of the paper is known only by a few friends of mine. They urged me to publish it. For some reason I declined(maybe I thought it could be improved). Meanwhile I died by a car accident. Under the copyright law, it cannot be published or copied at least for 50(or 70?) years. The progress of the science would be greatly delayed. Jan 31, 2015 at 18:06
  • 2
    My answer is about scientific papers. If you have it in handwriting (without publishing it) then asking what it will happen to society if it goes missing, is out of scope for this forum.
    – Alexandros
    Jan 31, 2015 at 18:18
  • 2
    ...and allowed them to publish it but with only a small number of copies. Haven't you heard that most libraries are now online? You cannot just make 10 copies.
    – Alexandros
    Jan 31, 2015 at 18:35
  • 1
    @Makoto: If you want to ask very specific, hypothetical questions about copyright law, I suggest you hire a copyright lawyer and pay them their standard hourly rate. They will be delighted to answer as many questions as you have. But this site is not appropriate for such legal questions, and we are not working for you. Jan 31, 2015 at 21:56
  • 5
    @Makoto: Science and copyright law are obviously compatible in the sense that at present copyright law exists and applies in particular to scientific documents. The question "Should a scientific paper have copyright?" is opinion-based and seems designed to engineer a debate. It is not a focused, practical question about academia which has an objectively correct answer, so in my opinion it is off-topic for this site. I have voted to close. Jan 31, 2015 at 22:13

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