Liz Bilodeau, Copyright Clearance Center; Miriam Gitler, PhD, ELS, MedImmune; Sharon Suntag, MS, CMPP, IQVIA

The work of publication professionals depends on the exchange of copyrighted material.

Medical publication professionals use the work of others when emailing an interesting article to the team, storing a copy in a literature database, or providing copies of articles to clients, vendors, review committees, advisors, or authors. They create new materials, which may eventually be used by others. They re-use material created by others or themselves when reproducing or adapting a figure that has been published or presented at a congress. Routine content exchanges can expose an organization to risk of copyright infringement if sharing takes place without permission.

Copyright is a form of Intellectual Property.

The main goals of copyright protection are to encourage the development of culture, science, and innovation and to facilitate access to knowledge and entertainment for the public, while providing a financial benefit to copyright holders. US Copyright law grants copyright holders exclusive rights to the works they create, including the right to reproduce, distribute, create derivative works, publicly perform, and publicly display. Copyright law varies by country, but nearly 180 countries have ratified the minimum standards set by the Berne Convention, administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

What is (and isn’t) protected by copyright?

Works in a fixed and tangible medium of expression that contain an element of creativity, whether written or recorded, print or digital, are protected under US copyright law. For publication professionals, the subject matter covered by copyright includes literary works, such as scientific articles and figures, charts and tables, which represent the copyright holder’s interpretation of information.

Works that are not fixed in a tangible medium of expression, or consist entirely of information, are not subject to copyright. Examples include ideas, facts, data, works in the public domain, and standard communications. Titles, brand names, and slogans are not protected by copyright, but may be protected by trademark.

Who owns the copyright to my work?

Under the minimum standards of the Berne Convention and under US copyright law, copyright protection is automatic once the work is created in a tangible medium. The Copyright Symbol ©, although not required, is an indicator that a work may be protected by copyright law and can serve to identify the rightsholder and when the work was created.

As publication professionals, it is important to note that any works created by an employee in the course of business would most likely be considered a “work for hire,” unless there is an agreement between the parties establishing a different ownership relationship.  This means that generally the company is the copyright holder, until rights are transferred, for example, to a publisher or congress organization. Scientific journals generally have a copyright transfer form to be completed upon manuscript acceptance, and it is important to understand requirements for submission as they may differ from journal to journal. Similarly, scientific congresses often require transfer of copyright for the abstract, and occasionally the presentation, from the authors. Existing copyright implications must be taken into consideration when submitting material, including encore presentations, to future congresses. This might include obtaining permission from the initial congress or re-writing to be different from the original copy.

Copyright and “free” content – When do I need permission?

When accessing online content, always check the terms of use of the publication, publisher, or website. The terms may be limited to personal, non-commercial use. If that is the case, you may need to obtain additional permission, for example, to use in a commercial manner.

Medical publication professionals often come across or publish content through Open Access – online content that is free of charge to access and read. It is important to recognize that Open Access refers to the accessibility of the content, not the permission for use.  Assume these materials are protected by copyright and familiarize yourself with permission options if you wish to re-use the article, or portions of it.

What options do I have for licenses?

Many countries have a Reproduction Rights Organization (RRO), which serves as a licensing agency for literary works based on different licensing models either required or permitted by local copyright law. Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) is the US-based RRO and has agreements with other RRO’s and with publishers around the world. CCC has a blanket license model (which covers millions of works). CCC distributes license fees collected from licensees to participating rightsholders.

CCC’s Annual Copyright License is a single source of millions of global rights that empowers companies to use and efficiently share published content, accelerate business results, and simplify copyright compliance. The license represents over 12,000 rightsholders. It supports research and publishing efforts in the life sciences industry by providing rights for common commercial uses, such as emailing articles to colleagues, posting articles to intranet sites/collaboration portals, submitting properly marked print and electronic copies of articles to government agencies for regulatory filings, and sharing a single copy with a client, customer, or prospect upon request.

A common source of licensing for Open Access content is Creative Commons. As a nonprofit organization, Creative Commons provides content creators with a number of options to grant usage rights to works for which they own the copyright. It is important to review the terms, including commercial uses permitted, to determine whether additional permissions are needed. For example, authors may have to be contacted directly for re-use permissions.

Requesting copyright permission for works not covered under a blanket license

If the works you need are not covered by a blanket or other license, then you need to contact the rightsholder directly. The list below outlines some of the information you will need to provide to the rightsholder.

  • Provide the citation of the work
  • Indicate:
    o If the use will be internal or external
    o How many times the work will be used
    o Format: hardcopy or digital
    o Duration of use
  • Ask if there are attribution requirements
  • Determine fee and payment terms
  • Create a sense of urgency – set a deadline
  • Obtain a written record of permissions

Note – If you are using the content as an employee of a company, then this falls under commercial use.

Lessons Learned

Copyright regulations are intended to provide a pathway to facilitate sharing of information; but, copyright infringement can cause serious damage and could adversely affect your career. An author may not be allowed to present at future scientific congresses or a journal may refuse to consider the author’s work, even if the infringement had been innocent or inadvertent. In some cases, the journal or congress may identify the issue. An example is a case where content had to be removed from congress presentation slides because the author did not provide adequate copyright permission for the figures. In other cases, a journal may receive communication from the copyright holder after the work is published.

Use of a work without the proper permissions could also have significant legal and financial implications, as well as long-term damage to your company’s reputation. While copyright infringement is a legal matter, plagiarism— presenting the work of others as one’s original creation—is a broader ethical issue. Even if a work is properly attributed to avoid plagiarism, it cannot be reproduced or adapted without applicable copyright permission.

To minimize risk, include copyright training as part of Good Publication Practice (GPP) training and make it part of your company’s publication policy. Educating colleagues is important in helping them understand when permission is required and how to get it. Leverage cost-effective solutions, such as CCC’s company-wide license, to simplify the permissions process. Understand the terms of use of source material and ensure a process is in place for requesting permissions. When creating and submitting your own content, be aware of copyright policies of the target journal, congress, etc., as well as the copyright policies of your institution and your arrangements with, and the expectations of, your co-creators.

For more information on copyright and to access resources to help you and your company, visit

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