Articles in Library Association Journal

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  • During discussions about digitizing the historic volumes of our state library association journal, the issue of the copyright status of the articles included in it was raised. As near as those of us around at the moment can determine, we've never asked authors to sign a copyright release form of any sort prior to publishing their articles in the journal. However, somewhere in our editorial policies and procedures it says the journal "is not copyrighted. Its content may be reproduced for scholarly or educational purposes."

    I don't know what the law said at the time the editorial policies were put into place, but with my understanding of the current laws, I don't think we can negate the rights of our authors simply by saying the journal isn't copyrighted. As I understand it, the author currently holds the copyright until it expires or they sign over their rights to another party.

    Do most of the state associations have their journal authors sign a release form?

    If so, does that form transfer copyright to the association or simply give the association permission to publish the article?

    Do you think we need to have all previous authors sign a release form prior to digitizing the older issues of the journal?

    If a commercial periodical database already includes digitized versions of some older issues of our journal (and I think one does), are we legally liable for any infringment for having incorrectly stated that the journal isn't copyrighted, or are they liable for taking our word for it?

    It's all so confusing! Any advice or opinions will be appreciated.
  • It is confusing, but here is some information that might be helpful.

    Everything depends on dates here, and you don't say what are "historical" issues of this journal. The significant turning point here is March 1, 1989

    Before 1989, material that was published without a copyright notice was immediately in the public domain. Between 1978 and 1989 this was true only if there was no subsequent copyright registration within five years of publication. So from what you say, it sounds like the articles published in your state association journal before 1989 are in the public domain and are free for reuse for everyone.

    Your understanding of current law is correct. Most journals do require either a copyright transfer or a license to publish from every author. I have published a newspaper column, however, where there was no agreement at all; in that situation, I was giving the newspaper an implied license to publish when I submitted the column, but I retained the copyright, subject to that license. That, it least, is my best guess as to the situation. Certainly I own that copyright as long as I do not explicitly transfer it.

    Authors since March 1989 should be asked to sign either a copyright transfer or a license for the digitization you now plan. For reasons given above, licenses from earlier authors are probably not needed.

    The journal did not, I don't think, incorrectly state that it was not copyrighted; no copyright was claimed in the collection itself. Before 1989, that was a significant statement, which dedicated published content to the public domain. After 1989, it simply means that each author retained his or her own copyright. A commercial database could be liable to those authors for unauthorized copying and distribution; in some circumstances I can imagine secondary liability for the journal, especially if they profited by selling contents to the database.
  • Yes, I think that was very helpful.

    Thanks very much for your response!

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