I have a question about copyright. When I make a presentation based on my research (together with co-authors from other countries), who owns the copyright of the presentation? I think, only I have the copyright since I give credit to my co-authors.

The problem is now that the university (I'm living in Germany, if that is important) tells me that they have to copyright on my talks since they pay me.

Do you have any answer for this or any comments?

  • 3
    There is a difference between exclusive right of use and non-exclusive right of use. Does your university just want to distribute copies of your presentation, or do they want to stop you from distributing it without their consent?
    – silvado
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 15:40
  • You have to give credit to your co-authors. But they are still your co-authors and as such also have certain rights of use. The university can have a right to get some license from you (e.g. for distributing it via their web site). However, legally they need to get a license from all co-authors as well. This is a most complicated situation if co-authors are not employees of your university and are even in other countries. But usually the purpose of a presentation is to make it public, so asking "Can we put it to the web site?" yields a "Go ahead." - and that's a license. Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 23:09

3 Answers 3


German copyright is very different from UK or US copyright. In German law, copyright always belongs to the author(s), and cannot be given away. What you can give away are the various rights of use.

The question here thus should be whether your university has a right to use your presentations, potentially even an exclusive right to use them. In the case of computer programs, §69b of the German copyright law explicitly states that the employer has the exclusive right to use the work.

I am not sure whether a lawyer could argue that your presentation is a computer program - maybe he could if it is a tex file :). Otherwise, as F'x writes, it depends on your work contract. If there is not an explicit statement in your work contract that the university has the right to use any copyrighted works that you authored during your employment, they will generally not have such rights. In the typical employment contracts at German universities, such statements are not included.

  • 2
    +1 for “The question here thus should be whether your university has a right to use your presentations, potentially even an exclusive right to use them”. This is the conclusion I reached while reading the Wikipedia page quoted in my answer.
    – F'x
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 16:23
  • 1
    I think a presentation would be treated more like a text, or figures, or a movie, not like a computer program. There the employer has rights to obtain rights of usage, but it is not automatic as with programs, and the author usually retains more rights. However if this is a German university, the OP should definitively have a look at his working contract: many PhD students have contracts that actually don't cover the research work. The wages are paid for teaching seminars etc. And things are yet different with scholarships... Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 22:58

Post-scriptum: in addition to the answer below, there are a few things that are crystal-clear:

  • The copyright of figures already published has probably been transferred to the publisher; copyright transfer agreements usually allow you to reüse them for academic talks and the like, but you don't own copyright for those.
  • If you use text or figures produced by others (and not already published), then you don't own copyright for those.

Such questions are very specific and are best answered by a professional, also known as lawyer. In fact, it certainly depends on the country your work in, but also the type of contract you signed with them. But, anyway…

Under US law, the copyrightable by-products of research (articles, talks, book chapters, etc.) are generally not considered as work-for-hire, and thus you retain authorship. Citing Wikipedia:

However, articles published in academic journals, or work produced by freelancers for magazines, are not generally works created as a work for hire, which is why it is common for the publisher to require the copyright owner, the author, to sign a copyright transfer, a short legal document transferring specific author copyrights to the publisher. In this case the authors retain those copyrights in their work not granted to the publisher.

(I don't regard Wikipedia as a particularly authoritative source, but it happens to match the existing practice of requesting authors to transfer copyright to journal publishers, not their universities.) It's somewhat of a gray area, in that some institutions actually claim such ownership, and the merits of such claims have not (to my knowledge) been much tested in court.

Note that situations can be more complex than that. For example, it seems that in German copyright law employment grants the employer an exclusive license to your work:

While exclusive licences are almost as powerful as copyright transfer, the author always retains some rights to the work, including the right to prevent defacing and to be identified as the author. Employment agreements are frequently construed as granting the employer an exclusive licence to any works created by the employee within the scope of his obligations.

In practice, an exclusive license is pretty much equivalent to a copyright transfers, because the only rights you retain are minor.

  • 1
    Just a comment about the copyright transfer: check with the journal you're publishing in about the rights you still retain. Most allow you to re-use your own work (e.g., use an image published in a journal article as a figure in a presentation).
    – aeismail
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 13:47
  • 7
    +1 for Ask a lawyer. However, if you want an objective answer, do not ask your university's lawyer.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 14:05

I'm going to answer this question based on my understanding of copyright law in the United Kingdom. The general principles are likely to be the same in German law, however, for a definitive answer, you should consult an expert in German copyright law. I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice in any jurisdiction.

The author of a literary work - in this case your presentation - is usually the first owner of the copyright in that work.

However, if that work was created in the course of employment, then the copyright in the work belongs to the employer.

The phrase in the course of employment requires careful consideration in such cases. I assume that you are an employee of your university, and that you were employed to conduct research. I suspect that you were also expected, as part of your employment, to create presentations of your research. I assume that these expectations were put in a contract of service - the usual case for a university researcher. This is distinct from obligations under a contract for service - which would be more common if you were commissioned to produce a specific piece of work.

If you were employed to conduct and report research as part of a contract of employment - the most likely case given what I know of your situation - it would appear that any copyright in your presentation rests with your employer, the University.

You mention co-authors. I assume that these are co-authors of the publication(s) regarding the research which you are describing in your presentation. If this is the case, and your co-authors did not contribute to the creation of the presentation itself, then the copyright in the presentation rests with solely you as first author or, by virtue of employment, solely with your employer (the most likely situation, as I read it).

If, on the other hand, your co-authors contributed to the creation of the presentation itself, then they - or their relevant employers - may be entitled to be considered joint owners of copyright in the presentation.

I have been discussing the copyright of the presentation - not the copyright arising in any research publication. I assume that you have included in your presentation items such as pictures, plots or graphs which appeared in your research publication. It is most likely that copyright for these works vests with the publisher of the research article.

If this is the case - that your research has been published (including, for example a graph) and that the copyright in that publication has been assigned to the publisher (again, the usual situation), then the use of that work in another work - e.g. using a graph from that publication in your presentation - may be considered an infringement of the copyright in the publication.

There is an exception to copyright infringement in several copyright laws which permits the use of copyrighted works for educational or research purposes. In this case, your University may well lay claim to copyright in your presentation as a literary work by virtue of their employment of you, however, they may also have to consider that they are able to use the copyrighted works included in that presentation (the plots, graphs etc, the copyright of which is held by the publisher of those works, e.g. the research journal) if the use is for research or teaching purposes. If, for example, the University decides to include your presentation - including a plot published in your original research paper - in a book, and then sold that book, the University is likely to require a licence from the journal which holds the copyright in the plot.

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