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Common Myths of Copyright

Copyright is something that a lot of scientists only give a passing thought to. However, this is something that affects us all.

If you publish your work, then you need to understand copyright, the different types of copyright, the difference between open access and copyright and what you can and cannot do under different copyright licences.

This article is here to dispel some of the common myths about copyright.

Myth One: It’s my work so I can reuse it as I wish

Whether you are republishing a diagram you used, or quoting yourself from a previous article, the first thing you have to realize is that the work you published in a journal may no longer belong to you. This comes as a surprise to many, but when you sign that author agreement you are often handing over copyright to the journal. This means you cannot use any images or text from that article elsewhere without getting permission from the journal. If you do, you will be breaching copyright.

There are exceptions – some journals do not claim copyright, instead the copyright remains with the author. Examples of such journals include many published by BioMed Central (e.g. Genome Biology and the BMC series such as BMC Biology and BMC Genomics), the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the PLOS series of journals (e.g. PLOS ONE, PLOS Genetics and PLOS Biology).

Beware – this also means that you do not get to decide whether or not people can reuse your work. With many of these journals you are agreeing to publish the work under a Creative Commons License, which allows people to reuse your images, tables and even take quotes without your permission (all those journal mentioned above publish their open access articles under a Creative Commons License).

Myth Two: Open access = No copyright

Another mistake people often make is thinking that if a journal is open access then they can reuse images and text without obtaining permission. This isn’t true! If you want to reuse that pretty picture from someone else’s open access article, make sure you check whether or not it is copyrighted.

For example, the journal Cell Reports published by Elsevier allows the use of images and content only for non-commercial purposes. Also, some journals that do publish under Creative Commons allow the authors to choose which kind of license is assigned to their article, including a CC-BY-NC-ND license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives), which means that while you can reuse content, it must be for non-commercial purposes and must NOT be adapted!

Myth Three: I only need to get permission from the author to reuse content

As mentioned above, in many journals (particular those that are not open access) the copyright holder is the journal and not the author, so even if you have permission from Professor X to reuse his nice image, this might still be infringing copyright. Therefore, if you are reusing content from a journal, check with the individual journal to whom the copyright belongs.

Tip: even if the author says the copyright belongs to them, double check with the journal. Many people don’t realize they are actually passing copyright over to the journal when they publish.

Myth Four: If I make minor adjustments to a figure I no longer need permission to reproduce

This is a fine line, and it depends very much on how much the figure has changed. If you change a significant amount of the figure, and it is no longer obvious that it was based on the original figure, then it is likely that permission is not required. It is, in fact, a new image. However, if the change is minor and it is clear that it is just a small change to the original image, then permission is still required, even though the figure has been ‘adapted’.

Beware – as mentioned before, some journals that publish under a Creative Commons License may allow an author to publish under a license that allows reproductions but does not allow adaptations (e.g. FEBS Open Bio allows authors to publish under the CC-BY-NC-ND license mentioned above).

Myth Five: I do not need permission to publish a quote from an article or book as long as I properly attribute the source

While it is true that you can publish some quotes without permission, even if the work is subject to copyright, this is often dependent on the length of the quotation.

A good rule of thumb is that quotes over 50 words from journal articles and quotes over 300 words from books will need permission (as indicated by Wiley Blackwell’s Guide to Authors).

And bear in mind that if you take multiple quotes from the same source, that it is the total number of words that counts (e.g. if you have two quotes from the same journal article that are both 30 words in length, you should seek permission as the total number is greater than 50 words).

Also please remember that just because an article allows you to republish quotes of any length without permission, you cannot leave out the attribution to where this text comes from, as you are now moving in the realms of plagiarism!

I hope this article has helped you to better understand copyright. The moral of the story here is to check with the journal as to whether permission is required, and if so, who the copyright holder is – and don’t forget this likely applies to your own articles as well.

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