Even if you transfer all rights to a publisher in your agreement, that transfer does not have to be unending, regardless of the wording of the contract. Under section 203 of the Copyright Act, you have the right to “terminate” the grant of rights to a publisher after a period of time and have the intellectual rights in your work transferred back to you.
Image Credit: "Press to cancel" by Tom Magliery via Flickr
This termination right would go into effect during a 5-year period beginning 35 years after the grant of rights to the publisher, or if you have granted publication rights, beginning either 35 years after publication or 40 years after the grant of rights, whichever comes first.
For more information terminating publisher rights, including the requirements for claiming this right, see the Columbia Law School "Keep Your Copyright" guide on Termination.
A publication agreement is a legal contract between you & your publisher. Among other things, it determines:
What You Can Do:
Transfer copyright but reserve some rights: Work to modify the language of the publishing contract to transfer copyright to the publisher while still retaining a non-exclusive license to reuse your work. See also the SPARC Author Addendum.
Keep copyright and transfer limited rights to the publisher: Work to modify the language of the publishing contract to grant a non-exclusive or exclusive license of limited rights to the publisher.
Submit work to publishers with more open copyright policies: Many publishers are liberalizing their policies to help achieve a balance between their interests and those of their authors. SHERPA/RoMEO maintains a list of publishers allowing deposition of published work in repositories.
As demonstrated above, you can assign your copyright to the publisher, and at the same time reserve some specific rights for yourself. Similarly, you can negotiate to retain copyright while assigning certain rights to the publisher. Whichever path you choose, it is important to understand the full “bundle of rights” involved in copyright before agreeing to give any of them away.
Below are some of the rights you might want to consider retaining when negotiating a publishing agreement:
The Scholar's Copyright Addendum Engine will help you generate a PDF form that you can attach to a journal publisher's agreement to ensure that you retain certain rights.
The SPARC Author Addendum is a pre-form addendum that can be filled in and attached to a publishing agreement to allow you to retain copyright and other intellectual rights to your work.
Another option for regaining rights that have been transferred to a publisher is through rights reversion.
Many publishing contracts, particularly for books, contain a reversion clause allowing the author to request that rights be reverted back to him once the book has been out of print or otherwise unavailable on the market for a period of time.
Even if you have a contract that lacks a reversion clause, it is possible to negotiate rights reversion with a publisher if you find that you work is currently out of circulation.
For more information about regaining rights to published work through reversion, the Authors Alliance provides a comprehensive resource in its guide Understanding Rights Reversion.