Copyright and the Harvard Open Access Mandate

66 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2012 Last revised: 31 Oct 2012

Eric Priest

University of Oregon School of Law

Date Written: August 1, 2012


Open access proponents argue that scholars are far more likely to make their articles freely available online if they are required to do so by their university or funding institution. Therefore, if the open access movement is to achieve anything close to its goal of seeing all scholarly articles freely available online, mandates will likely play a significant role. In 2008, the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopted a policy that purports not only to require scholars to deposit their works in open access repositories, but also to grant the university nonexclusive copyright licenses to archive and publicly distribute all faculty-produced scholarly articles. A number of other American universities have since adopted similar policies. The principal aim of this Article is to analyze the legal effect of these Harvard-style open access “permission” mandates.

By invoking copyright law terminology in permission mandates, schools might intend that they have the legal effect of transferring nonexclusive rights to the school, thereby clarifying and fortifying the school’s rights to reproduce and publicly disseminate faculty works. However, the legal effect of these mandates is uncertain for several reasons. First, it is unsettled whether scholars or their university employers are the authors and initial owners of scholarly articles under U.S. copyright law’s work-made-for-hire rules, which vest authorship and copyright ownership in the employer for works created by employees within the scope of employment. Second, the mandates are broad university policies that purport to grant the university nonexclusive copyright licenses in every scholarly article unless a faculty member affirmatively opts out on a per-article basis. Are the policies specific enough to provide the essential terms of the grant? Furthermore, can the mere adoption of a school policy, without some additional affirmative act by the author, effectuate such a grant without unduly encroaching upon the author’s autonomy interests? Lastly, even if the policies effectuate nonexclusive license grants, will the licenses survive after the author transfers copyright ownership to a journal publisher as per common practice? Section 205(e) of the Copyright Act provides that a prior nonexclusive license evidenced in a writing signed by the right holder prevails over a subsequent conflicting transfer of copyright ownership, so the answer appears to turn on whether permission mandates satisfy the requirements of § 205(e).

This Article argues that permission mandates can create legally enforceable, durable nonexclusive licenses. First, it argues that although there are important justifications, including academic freedom concerns, for recognizing the controversial “teacher exception” to the work for hire rules for scholarly articles, such an exception may be unnecessary because a strong argument also exists that much scholarship is produced outside the scope of employment for work for hire purposes. Second, it argues that permission mandates provide sufficient evidence of the grantor’s intent and the rights granted to create effective nonexclusive licenses. Third, permission mandates satisfy the requirements of § 205(e) and establish the license’s priority over the subsequent transfer of copyright ownership largely because they fulfill the underlying purposes of § 205(e) by providing sufficient evidence and notice of the license to potential copyright transferees (typically academic publishers). In reaching these conclusions, this Article emphasizes that Courts should consider the uniformity costs (social costs resulting from applying uniform rules and granting uniform entitlements across diverse conditions) that arise from applying to scholarly articles copyright rules developed to address proprietary models of information production. Applying the relevant copyright rules in a manner sensitive to the nonmarket nature of scholarly production is the most effective way to reduce these social costs, and reinforces the conclusion that mandate licenses are enforceable.

Lastly, the Article considers whether the opt-out nature of permission mandates offends notions of authorial autonomy in copyright. It compares permission mandates with another high profile opt-out licensing regime: the proposed Google Books settlement agreement, which the court rejected partly because of authorial autonomy concerns. Authorial autonomy is far less of a concern for scholarly articles than for the books at issue in the Google Books case, however, due to the nonmarket nature of scholarly article production coupled with academic community norms. Accordingly, it does not substantially interfere with authors’ autonomy interests to find that the opt-out structure of permission mandates creates valid nonexclusive licenses in universities.

Keywords: copyright, open access, mandates, nonexclusive licenses. work for hire, work made for hire, scholarship

Suggested Citation

Priest, Eric, Copyright and the Harvard Open Access Mandate (August 1, 2012). Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, Vol. 10, p. 377, 2012. Available at SSRN:

Eric A. Priest (Contact Author)

University of Oregon School of Law ( email )

1280 University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403
United States

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