Scholarly works are protected under copyright once they are published. Copyright can be assigned or transferred to another party, e.g., the author can transfer the copyright to the publisher.
For subscription-based journals, in order to facilitate the protection against copyright infringement and enable efficient processing of publishing licensing and permission, the publisher often requires authors to assign or transfer the copyright to the publisher before they will publish the articles. Usually a Copyright Transfer Agreement or an Exclusive License Agreement needs to be signed by the author, as part of the publishing contract. After the copyright is transferred or certain license is issued, the publisher can publish and distribute the author's work, enforce the rights in the work on behalf of the author (e.g. grant permission to others to reuse the work), including for commercial purposes.
What are Copyright Transfer Agreement and Exclusive License Agreement?
A Copyright Transfer Agreement involves legally transferring copyright from the author to the publisher, while the publisher may grant some rights (a license) back to the author, e.g. to deposit a copy in an institutional repository.
An Exclusive License Agreement means that the author owns the copyright but grants an exclusive license to the publisher so the publisher (and only this publisher) can publish and disseminate the work.
The author may also choose to sign a Non-Exclusive License Agreement with the publisher, meaning that the author keeps the copyright and can still contract with others in the future. However, the publisher usually does not offer this choice.
The terms in such agreements may vary from publisher to publisher. Regardless of the format, the agreement should contain requirements and address rewards for both parties. To protect your rights as an author, it is recommended that you examine the terms stated in the agreements concerning the following rights:
the right to reuse the work in a later work (e.g. a book chapter, a thesis or dissertation work)
the right to reproduce and distribute copies to classes or lectures for educational purpose
the right to reproduce and distribute copies to conferences and professional colleagues
the right to share the work, including post in author's homepage, deposit in an institutional repository, etc.
usually the rights to reuse, reproduce and distribute the work will be transferred to the publisher if a Copyright Transfer Agreement is signed. This means that even the author will need to ask for permission to reuse his or her own work.
regarding the "copies" of the work, some publishers will only allow to distribute a limited number of printed copies.
many publishers will specify the version of work that can be shared online or apply an embargo period to the shared work, e.g. only "accepted manuscript" can be deposited in an institutional repository after an embargo period of 12 or 24 months. Final version of publication usually cannot be directly posted online without publisher's permission. (Learn more about deposit the right version of your work in PolyU Institutional Research Archive)
For Open Access articles, it is more common to adopt Creative Commons (CC) licenses, where the author retains the copyright, and can grant the publisher a license (can be exclusive or non-exclusive) to publish and distribute the article.
Gilliland, A. T. (2017). Copyright Assignment, Transfer, and Licensing: What Is Best for Scholarly Journal Authors? In K. L. Smith & K. A. Dickson (Eds.), Open Access and the Future of Scholarly Communication: Implementation (pp. 1-10). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Gasaway, L. N. (2013). Copyright questions and answers for information professionals from the columns of Against the Grain. West Lafayette, Ind: Purdue University Press.
Major publishers all define their guidelines regarding copyright and licensing. Here are some guidelines of major publishers for your reference: