NOTE added March 7, 2007: This item has been the subject of some controversy, which is good. Some university press publishers felt it was an attack, which is not so good. Although I didn't intend it as an attack, upon re-reading I can see their point. Instead of changing the post, however, I've decided to let it stand as a well-intentioned almost-polemic, and then offer the publishers equal time. Over the next weeks and months I hope to post feedback from respected university press publishers on why they do ask for copyright, what the benefits are to the author and the book, and where they feel the debate stands today. I'll also post feedback from trade press publishers on whether or not they ask for copyright (in my experience most do not, but there may be others who think differently). I will also post comments from the Author's Guild.
Here is the original post, from early December 2006:
Why? Why? This is a baffling habit, and it seems to be industry-wide. Whereas elite trade publishers almost always write the contract so that copyright is in the name of the author, university press publishers ask for -- or occasionally try to demand -- the copyright. Never let them. For one thing, it is your book. You wrote it, and you should be the ultimate owner of it. That's the moral aspect. But the practical considerations are also important. If the publisher has your copyright, and you want to contribute an article to a journal largely based on a chapter from your book -- especially if you want to use some of your same prose -- you'll have to ask the publisher pretty please to grant permission. Absurd! These are your words, and you should be able to re-use them as you wish.
The good news is that university press publishers are usually fine with you asking for the copyright in your name. So far in this job they've granted copyright to my authors 100% of the time, and not once has there been a discussion, let alone an argument. Of course, I've only been back at Georgetown in this capacity for a year (although I was in the English Department from 1997-2003). There is still time for a university press publisher to surprise me on something. But for now, just remember the watchphrase of this office: "Always keep your copyright."