I admit that what caught my eye in this story is the unique name of the band involved — Death Cab for Cutie — and the fact that I know this to be one of my twenty-year-old niece’s favorite acts.
All that aside, the story is an object lesson in the problems with transferring copyright without careful consideration, and versions of this problem are occurring everyday in academia.
What happened to Death Cab for Cutie is that they posted an embedded YouTube video of themselves singing one of their own songs on their own website. Except, of course, that they do not own the rights in their own music, having transferred those rights, in one way or another, to their record label. So, as this report indicates, they received a “takedown” notice alleging copyright infringement from their own label, Warner Music Group. The video is gone now, and DCFC is not able to share their own music with their fans, even though all sides must realize that doing so would increase sales.
Likewise, numerous academics have assumed that they can post their own work to personal websites, even after they have signed publication agreements. When those agreements transfer copyright, however, this assumption is likely to be wrong. There are lots of stories, unfortunately, of academic authors receiving similar “cease and desists” letters to the one the band got, where their own publishers inform them that, as the (now) owners of the copyright in the scholars’ work, they do not permit the authors to post the works they wrote.
The lesson here is twofold. First, once you sign a publication agreement, it controls the distribution of rights and it is dangerous to assume you can continue to use your own work as you wish. It is important to read these agreements and to abide by their terms. Second, however, is the equally important lesson that one can negotiate the distribution of rights within these agreements. Don’t wait till after the fact to read the agreement; read it before you sign and negotiate for the right to use your own work in ways you will want or need in the future.
Death Cab for Cutie probably had little flexibility in their relationship with their record label and, unfortunately, they did not learn until late in the game that they had sold their rights. For academic authors it is much more likely that, with a little forethought, similar problems can be avoided. All it takes is attention to the terms of a publication agreement and consideration of exactly what rights will be beneficial for you, as an author, to retain.