Adventures in Publishing Contracts

Some months back I received a contract from a Certain University Press for an article that I’ve got forthcoming in what’s going to be a super cool edited volume. I was a little taken aback, on reading the contract, to discover that I was being asked to sign over 100% of my copyright to the press, and that I was promising to refrain from doing anything with the article other than simply handing it over to them. No provisions for depositing a pre-print in an institutional repository, not even with an embargo. Nothing.

(Let us just say that the topic — heck, the title — of my article made this situation a little ironic.)

So with the support of the volume’s editors, I edited the agreement to add in the phrase “except as provided for in the attached addendum,” and then attached a version of the CIC Author’s Copyright Contract Addendum. And thought, well, we’ll see what happens.

I heard nothing for months, until today, when I received a revised contract from the Press. This contract:

1. Leaves all copyright with me. (Yay!)

2. Grants to the Press a license to publish the article in this volume, as well as to republish it in any derivative works, in all languages, in any media (“now or hereafter known”), throughout the world. (Perfectly fine with me. They could even have included the entirety of the universe, known and unknown, as a recent contract received by a friend of mine did.)

3. Says that I agree not to “license, publish, transmit, post (or permit the license, publication, transmission or posting)” of the article for a period of 1 year after publication without prior written permission, after which I can do whatever I want to with it.

And that’s the one I have a question about. Because as I read it, they’ve given me both more and less than I’ve asked for. The CIC agreement has a six-month embargo, rather than a year, it separates out uses of the text by the author’s home institution (for posting in an institutional repository, for instance) from general republishing, and retains for myself immediate and perpetual rights to use the article in any way I’d like in conjunction with my teaching, conference presentations, lectures, and the like.

On the other hand, all of those latter two uses seem subsumed within the fact that this version of the contract leaves all copyright with me, merely licensing it to the Press. The only thing I’m giving up is that additional six months of being able to republish it however I like.

So… I’m curious how you read this? Would you be willing to sign off on the contract now? Are there other issues I ought to consider here?


  1. I had a very similar experience recently with a journal. Frustrating, especially since the restrictions do nothing to improve the market for the content–it’s just a safety blanket for the press.

    The decision obviously comes down to how “pure” you feel you need to be. My feeling (influenced somewhat by the fact that I had coauthored the piece and wanted my coauthor to get credit, and also by the fact that the piece wasn’t about open access) was that it wasn’t a helpful moment to be aggressively virtuous.

    But in other cases I have asked for an additional clause that focuses on “the article in its final format“, thus leaving me the option of immediately posting the near-final version (without layout, etc) on my website.

    If you’re feeling more aggressive, or feel that there is irony given the topic of your piece, you might weigh how much leverage you have. As Paul Courant and I have discussed, shame can be a powerful motivator. “I see no reason for the one-year embargo, it won’t effect sales–can you show me a study that says otherwise?–and if I pull out I’ll blog about it to a rather large audience with the actual name of your press.”

  2. Super frustrating, indeed. I hate having to choose between virtue and inclusion. In this case, the volume is not entirely populated with digital scholars — on the contrary — and so it seems really important to have the perspective I’m presenting included. And again, I have to acknowledge that the press has given me more than I asked for, in addition to giving me less. So it’s disappointing, but not impossibly so.

  3. I think you won this one, I really do — you knocked them down a LONG way from their initial ask.

    I suspect their counteroffer was largely brinksmanship, an attempt to retain some sense of control over what’s going on, rather than any sort of principled (much less data-driven) sense of what embargo length is optimal. In this case, I see no reason not to sign the revised contract and let them “win.” The trade is six extra months’ embargo versus quite a bit more freedom!

    1. Hey, thanks for this, Dorothea. If you think I’ve won, I must have! The trade-off feels increasingly reasonable to me, the longer I let it sit, and so I think I will sign and send the thing back. Thanks for the input.

  4. Chiming in a week late to say that I agree with Dorothea. You basically got what you wanted.

    This kind of time restriction makes presses (or some anxious person at the press in question) feel that they’ll have a full year to achieve sales of their book. It’s very unlikely to be an evidence-based argument, but relies, I assume, on the notion from the print world that the first printing should sell through in approximately a year, after which costs of producing it are covered. I’m not saying that’s convincing, but it’s the reasoning that I expect is at play.


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