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Glossary of Legal Terms


As described in US law, copyright grants the creator of an original work a set of exclusive rights related to the distribution and use of that work. These exclusive rights include reproduction and distribution of the work, the creation of derivative works based on the underlying work (for example, a translation), and public performance of the work. These rights are limited by the duration of the copyright term as well as limitations and exceptions to copyright law itself, such as fair use.

Creative Commons licenses

Easy-to-understand licenses that can be used by rightsholders to allow readers to make certain uses of a work without having to seek permission. In concert with your publisher, you can choose to apply a CC license to your work, which will make it easier for readers to use your work in teaching, further research, and public scholarship.

Exclusive and non-exclusive licenses

An exclusive license means that the party owning the relevant rights is the only person or entity who can exercise those rights. For example, if your publisher has an exclusive license to produce and sell print copies of your work, the publisher is the only entity who can do so. Though you may still own other rights in your work, you cannot produce and sell print copies of your work under the terms of your agreement with the publisher.

A non-exclusive license allows a party to exercise the rights in question, but does not preclude others from exercising those same rights or assigning them to others. If your publisher has a non-exclusive right to produce and sell print copies of the work, you as the author could allow other parties to also produce and sell print copies of your work, or you could do so yourself. A common example of non-exclusive licenses in publishing are permissions, where the copyright owner for an image may grant permission for that image to be used in a book, and may also use that image in their own work, or grant someone else permission to use that image on a poster.


Portions of one’s rights or all of one’s rights under copyright can be transferred or assigned to another party. This process is often called licensing. In academic publishing, it is common for authors and publishers to agree that some rights will be held by the author, while others will be licensed or granted to the publisher. In the context of publishing, licensing of various rights under copyright facilitates the sale and distribution of your work, its availability in various markets or formats, and other activities of interest to an author and a publisher.

Material breach

If either party fails to deliver on the promises they have made in the agreement, it can be terminated under certain conditions. A “material breach” is a failure to fulfill one’s duties such that the agreed upon purpose of the contract can no longer be achieved. For example, if you agreed to deliver a book-length manuscript on the cultural significance of cat videos, and instead you deliver a sound recording of an opera addressing the same topic, this would likely be considered a material breach of your contract. However, if you delivered a manuscript on cat videos that merely used the wrong citation style, this would likely not be considered a material breach, as it can be corrected and the book could proceed with publication.

Rights reversion

Either via a clause in their contract or a process of negotiation, authors and publishers often agree to have some rights “revert” to the author after a period of time or due to other factors. Exclusive rights previously held by the publisher or other entity are then transferred back to the author, who can choose to exercise them. The Model Publishing Contract contains a clause on rights reversion in order to make this process easier for all parties involved. For more information on rights reversion, see the Authors Alliance guide to rights reversion.

Subsidiary rights

Subsidiary rights are an important part of publishing, entertainment, and media contracts. In exercising a subsidiary right, one produces a different format based on the original work. Translations, adaptations for television or film, and audiobooks are common examples of subsidiary rights. Subsidiary rights can be licensed or transferred to other parties.


Payment made to a publisher by an academic institution, scholarly society, foundation, or other entity to support the publication of scholarly works. Commonly used to support first books by new authors, works that are heavily illustrated, or scholarship that was costly to produce. However, subventions can also be used to offset the full cost of production in order to make scholarly works free to read.

Third-party claims

Legal action taken by an entity not party to the original agreement (e.g., not the author or publisher). Examples of third party claims relevant to academic publishing include copyright infringement of someone else’s work, libel, defamation, etc.

Work for hire

Under US copyright law, “work for hire” or “work made for hire” is a technical term which describes works subject to copyright protection that are made by an employee in the scope of their employment. In this situation, the employee does not hold the copyrights to the work. Rather, the employer owns those rights and is the copyright owner from the moment the work is created. The academy and academic publishing have a long tradition of viewing academic works as the work of their authors, and not as work made for hire. As an academic author, you typically own the rights to your scholarly works; the university or college who employs you does not. This traditional understanding extends to students, as well. Student authors are generally considered to be the rightsholder for works produced in the course of their education (with some exceptions to this for students acting in their capacity as employees of an educational institution).