Annual Meeting Reports

Copyright, Open Access, Subscriptions, and Permissions: What Editors Need to Know in the New Digital Publishing Environment

As digital versions of scientific publications become more prominent, editors and others face questions about copyright, access, and related topics. At this session, speakers presented information, advice, and reflections in this regard.

Christopher Kenneally, of the Copyright Clearance Center (, began by quipping that, like politicians and teabags, copyright is tested only when put into hot water. Copyright law reflects a balance between giving authors an incentive to produce and serving the public need for information. Because of the World Wide Web, information has become easier to obtain and share. People commonly forward copyright-protected content to others, and they often consider anything on the Web to be available for further use.

Focusing on US copyright law, Kenneally noted that copyright is secured automatically when a work is created; among rights included are those to make and distribute copies, display the item on the Internet, and prepare derivative works. He explained that each “stick” in this “bundle of rights” can be transferred separately via exclusive or nonexclusive licenses. Kenneally emphasized that fair use—which includes use of copyrighted materials for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, and research—is a “defense to a claim of copyright infringement, not an exception to copyright compliance”. He said that “any non-digital content that is protected by copyright is also protected in a digital form.” Permission to use works, he said, can be obtained from rights holders, content aggregators, and collective management organizations, such as the Copyright Clearance Center. Copyright infringers can be required to pay monetary damages and, in extreme cases, can be jailed.

In closing, Kenneally presented what he termed “key takeaways”, including these ideas: attribution does not substitute for copyright permission, being publicly available does not place a work in the public domain, and content on the Internet has the same protection as nondigital content. “If you’re confused, you’re beginning to understand the problem,” he said.

John Wilbanks, of the Creative Commons project Science Commons, offered a mix of philosophic reflections, metaphors, and practicalities. “It’s not about the law, it’s about the network effect,” he mused, noting that how people use the Internet tends to run counter to copyright. He also likened the flow of knowledge to the flow of electrons in a wire and he considered sources of resistance. Later, he described how via the Creative Commons Web site ( one can develop licenses allowing others to use one’s work under the conditions that one specifies. In closing, he posed a choice between two futures: one akin to the World Wide Web, with broad access, and the other akin to an iPhone. His closing advice was to “get ahead of the curve”, “link into data and tools”, and “expect the unexpected”.

Dale D Berkley, a lawyer at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), focused mainly on Section 218 of Public Law 110-161, requiring “all investigators funded by the NIH to submit to PubMed Central [the NIH digital archive] an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication”. Berkley outlined methods available for depositing papers into PubMed Central; the best method for all concerned, he said, was for journals to deposit, without author involvement, the final published versions of all articles reporting NIH-funded research. In addition, Berkley stated that grantees should ensure that all agreements with publishers are consistent with submission to PubMed Central, and he described a “cover sheet” that NIH scientists attach to publishers’ agreements to address PubMed Central inclusion and other matters. He noted that some other funders of research— including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the European Research Council, the UK Medical Research Council, and the Wellcome Trust—also require public accessibility of articles that report research that they have funded. In his final comments, he emphasized the importance of such open access to the vitality of 21stcentury science.