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Copyright and licences

Getting published means entering into an agreement with a publisher, it is at this point you should be aware of copyright and licences.


Publishers often expect authors to assign copyright to them as part of the publishing agreement. As an author you are the first owner of copyright unless it has been claimed by a funder or an employer. Note: The Open University does not claim copyright over research outputs published by OU researchers.

Publishers will frequently require the transfer of that copyright in the form of a Copyright Transfer Agreement (CTA). Once this has been signed the copyright of the work belongs to the publisher. The publisher may grant some rights back to you e.g. re-use for non-commercial purposes or deposit in a repository, but that is up to the publisher, and they will vary from one publisher to another.

Always read the CTA; if the rights are too restrictive consider negotiating with the publisher. Author Addendums have been created to allow authors to revise publisher standard contracts, e.g. SPARC (The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) Addendum and Science Commons' Scholar's Copyright Addendum Engine.

Even if you retain copyright, publishers may require an exclusive license to publish - which may mean you have much the same rights than if you had assigned copyright to the publisher.

If you publish in an Open Access (OA) journal you will most likely retain copyright of your article and you will be able to assign certain rights to users in the form of a licence.


If you publish in an OA journal you will most likely be asked to add a licence to the article to allow its re-use. Creative Commons licences are increasingly common, and there are several licence variations which determine how the material can be shared and re-used. 

Gold OA articles are often published with one of the more permissive licences, CC BY, which allows re-use only on condition of attribution. CC BY licences are increasingly required by research funders when publishing Gold OA, such as UKRI/RCUK, since they can enable greater visibility and impact of research, as well as maximising possibilities for re-use. See our Open Access Policies pages for further details.

Articles made OA by the Green route are likely to have less permissive licences, e.g. Elsevier allow the Author's Accepted Manuscript to be deposited in an OA repository with a CC BY-NC-ND licence which allows for non-commercial, non-derivative use.

Understanding Creative Commons licences

Infographic showing the difference types of Creative Commons licence

© JoKalliauer. Creative Commons LIcenses, Wikimedia Commons. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence.

There are six main types of Creative Commons licence as you can see above, ranging from the most permissive at the top, to the least permissive at the bottom. The Public Domain licence, or CC0, is a ‘no rights reserved’ tool and not considered to be part of the main suite of Creative Commons licences. It is very unlikely that you will be required to apply CC0 to your publications. However, knowledge of this licence may be useful to you should you wish to reuse content that has been licensed this way.

Aside from CC0, each licence begins CC BY. This stands for ‘attribution’, meaning that the user of the Creative Commons licensed work must provide an appropriate credit to the copyright holder. The CC BY licence allows you to use the licensed work in any way you wish, as long as you credit the creator of that work.

SA means ‘ShareAlike’. This element allows you to build upon an existing work, modify it, and adapt it. Whatever you create and publish as a result of those modifications however, must be shared by you under the same licence terms. For example, you cannot modify a CC BY-SA image and upon publication restrict it with a non-commercial licence.

The ND ‘NoDerivatives’ element stands in contrast to ShareAlike. This prohibits you from making adaptations to the work and sharing that adaptation. This includes modifications such as resizing images, removing text, watermarks, logos from documents etc, The work must be shared in its original form.

The final element is ‘NonCommercial'. NC licences do not allow the use of the content for any commercial purposes.

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