by Natalie Lakosil
I’ve been asked why we request permission from a publisher or other rights holder when copyright is registered under the author’s name. I thought it’s worth a moment to explain.
Copyright is legal recognition of authorship of an original work (see this helpful guide on copyright basics); but just like when a car manufacturer sells a car, only the person who bought it can drive it legally – unless he/she gives permission to do otherwise.
When an author signs a contract with a publishing house, the contract will (typically) dictate that the publisher has the exclusive right to publish and distribute the author’s work (in whatever territory specified, such as the United States). The author cannot let anyone else publish or distribute as long as the contract is in place.
As with any agreement, the terms can be negotiated, which is why sometimes, the author retains the right to allow certain use of his or her work.
So yes, even though the author retains copyright – i.e., acknowledgement that he or she created the work – the author cannot grant permission to use the work if he or she has “sold” it to someone else.
When a book goes out of print, an author can request his/her rights back. The author has to specifically request for this to happen though. Going back to my previous example with cars, just because the car owner is no longer driving it, doesn’t automatically mean the car belongs to the manufacturer. The manufacturer would need to ask for its car back, just like an author needs to request the rights back to his or her work, in order to legally own it again. This is why even when a book is no longer in print, we still need to request from the publisher if the rights to the author’s book have not reverted back to the author.
It’s a good thing to keep all of these copyright basics in mind for journals or newspapers too; just because an author (or professor) wrote an article does not mean he/she can use it for free and without permission, even in a course pack for his or her own class if it’s been published somewhere else!