What would happen if I placed my manuscripts in the Public Domain?
December 13, 2012
We know that most academic journals and edited volumes ask authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement before proceeding with publication. When this is done, the publisher becomes the owner of the paper; the author may retain some rights according to the grace or otherwise of the publisher.
Plenty of authors have rightly railed against this land-grab, which publishers have been quite unable to justify. On occasion we’ve found ways to avoid the transfer, including the excellent structured approach that is the SPARC Author Addendum and my tactic of transferring copyright to my wife.
Works produced by the U.S. Federal Government are not protected by copyright. For example, papers written by Bill Parker as part of his work at Petrified Forest National Park are in the public domain.
Journals know this, and have clauses in their copyright transfer agreements to deal with it. For example, Elsevier’s template agreement has a box to check that says “I am a US Government employee and there is no copyright to transfer”, and the publishing agreement itself reads as follows (emphasis added):
Assignment of publishing rights
I hereby assign to <Copyright owner> the copyright in the manuscript identified above (government authors not electing to transfer agree to assign a non-exclusive licence) and any supplemental tables, illustrations or other information submitted therewith that are intended for publication as part of or as a supplement to the manuscript (the “Article”) in all forms and media (whether now known or hereafter developed), throughout the world, in all languages, for the full term of copyright, effective when and if the article is accepted for publication.
So journals and publishers are already set up to deal with public domain works that have no copyright. And that made me wonder why this option should be restricted to U.S. Federal employees.
What would happen if I just unilaterally place my manuscript in the public domain before submitting it? (This is easy to do: you can use the Creative Commons CC0 tool.)
Once I’d done that, I would be unable to sign a copyright transfer agreement. Not merely unwilling — I wouldn’t need to argue with publishers, “Oh, I don’t want to sign that”. It would be simpler than this. It’s would just be “There is no copyright to transfer”.
What would publishers say?
What could they say?
“We only publish public-domain works if they were written by U.S. federal employees”?