I recently completed my doctoral dissertation, and I am now planning to publish it with a well-established publisher. The publisher asked if I can verify whether I own the copyright in the dissertation. Do I still own the copyright, even if my dissertation is available through ProQuest or is on my university’s digital repository?
In general, the copyright in a new work belongs initially to the person who created it, so the student who wrote the dissertation holds the copyright, except in highly unusual situations. For instance, an employer supporting the student’s studies or an outside funding source may lay claim to whatever intellectual property is created. These types of arrangements are unusual and are fraught with ethical and pragmatic challenges. Be careful when you sign any such agreements.
Submitting the dissertation to ProQuest does not change the copyright ownership. The author may choose to make the work available on ProQuest through either the Open Access or traditional publishing models. Similarly, posting the dissertation to the university repository (such as Academic Commons at Columbia) does not transfer the copyright.
A transfer of exclusive rights is not valid unless the transfer is in writing and is signed by the owner. A grant of a nonexclusive license, by contrast, does not have to be in writing, although some documentation of the deal is a good idea. An example of a “license” would be permission to let someone post your work to a website. A “nonexclusive” license is one that you grant, but you may grant to other parties as well.
ProQuest also offers the service of registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Once the registration process is complete, you can look for the registration records online. Search your name in the database. For example, a search for “Crews Kenneth” under Name turns up nine registered works. The item with Copyright Number TX0003024199 is my dissertation. These records are at least evidence of your claim as of the filing date. Registration has other implications and benefits, but that is a longer story we can save for another day. Meanwhile, the registration in your name will surely satisfy your publisher’s questions about copyright ownership. Even if you did not register the work, your confirmation that you have not signed any previous agreements will probably be persuasive.
[This Q&A is courtesy of the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University. It is for information purposes and is not legal advice.]
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