Contracts with publishers - Fundamentals
D.Gile, April 2, 2005

As authors of papers and monographs and editors of collective volumes, we are required to sign contracts with publishers. Such contracts are necessary not only to set out the precise duties and rights of all parties to the agreement, but also to protect them. Actually, since academic books in TS have a limited market and royalties never amount to huge sums, such protection is not essential for authors/editors. It can be much more important for the publishers, who could be taken to court by other publishers for violating copyrights and have to pay large sums. Out of honesty and out of respect for publishers who often take financial risks when publishing our work, copyright clauses should be taken seriously and observed.

On the other hand, there is no reason why scholars should grant exclusive copyrights forever to the publisher. Depending on the book or the paper, the publisher may make virtually all of the sales within 5 years from the date of publication and lose very little if the product is distributed for free afterwards. For the scholar’s career, it may be important to be able to distribute his/her article for a far longer time. Why not change the terms of the contract proposed by the publisher, for instance by introducing the possibility for the author to put her/his paper online on her/his personal website, either from the time of publication or a few years after the date of publication of the hard copy?

A contract is not the law. It is a commitment by two or more parties, and can be and should be negotiated until its terms meet the interests of all parties. Publishers find it convenient to propose a standard contract, with standard clauses, drafted by lawyers who have in mind the interests of their client (the publisher), not the interests of individual scholars. Some provisions in standard contracts (provided by one party) are unjustified and entail unacceptable risks to the other party. Examples will be given in another contribution on this site. Many people disregard them, saying that it is unlikely that they will be implemented. Just as unlikely as an accident in which you might injure someone and have to pay huge amounts in damages. Do you conclude from that that you can drive your car without taking out an insurance policy? Insurance costs money – negotiating changes in a contract before it is signed does not. There is no reason why scholars should accept standard contracts as they are. They can and should read them carefully, and negotiate changes in provisions which they do not like. In my experience, publishers have often been reasonable about it.