It's Red season, and we can learn a lot about copyright from Taylor Swift

A picture of Taylor Swift wearing a red dress, sitting in a chair during an interview
Photo: Taylor Swift during an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America for the original release of her 2012 album Red. Photo by Paolo Villanueva (; image shared via CC BY 2.0).

Last month, singer and songwriter Taylor Swift released her re-recording of her 2012 album Red. This is the second album that she has re-recorded, after re-publishing her 2008 album Fearless back in April. But why is she doing this, and what can this teach us as academics and writers?

In Canada, copyright is the exclusive right to use, make copies, and share a work. When you author a work (such as a song, video, or paper) you automatically – and without any registration – get the copyright. With music, copyright can apply separately to the underlying musical arrangement and the sound recording (i.e., the “masters”). The right to use, make copies, and distribute the sound recordings can be extremely valuable. Musicians often hand over the copyright of the sound recordings to the record labels in exchange for producing, marketing, and selling the albums.

This can be a good deal at the start of a musician’s career, as the costs of producing and selling an album can be extremely high, but it restricts how an artist can use and profit from their own works down the road. Other artists and groups such as Prince and The Beatles have had similar issues with losing the copyright over their own works and have battled with their record labels for years trying to get control back – but most have not had much success.

Taylor Swift found herself in a similar position in 2019 when Big Machine, the record label behind her first six albums (and the owner of the copyright to the masters), was purchased by Scooter Braun’s company Ithaca Holdings. The ownership of Taylor’s masters was transferred to Braun, and then later sold to an investment fund. 

According to Taylor, she had tried to purchase the masters for years, but Big Machine would only give her the opportunity to do so if she signed on with the label for further years. Following the sale, she was allegedly blocked from performing her older songs at the American Music Awards and using her song records in the documentary Miss Americana. She could no longer use her own music, how she wanted because she had lost the copyright to her own masters.

This is a position that many musicians, writers, and even academics find themselves in – losing the copyright of their works to companies with their own commercial priorities. Luckily, as the songwriter of her songs, Taylor kept the copyright to the underlying musical arrangements, and starting in 2019 she announced her intentions to re-record and publish her first six albums. With her resources, she has been able to assemble the original team of musicians and sound producers to replicate these songs – giving her full control to use and profit from her original music however she wants.

You may be thinking to yourself that none of this applies to you, but this is not true. We are commonly required to transfer the copyright to the publisher, and this has implications for individuals, our institutions, and scholarly publishing at large.

When we publish our works in academic journals, edited volumes and books produced by commercial publishers, and even non-profit scholarly societies, we often don’t receive financial compensation because our priority isn’t on profiting. Our priority isn’t necessarily on profiting from our written works, instead, we are motivated to share the results of our research with others in the community. But when transferring the copyright to our works, we are often limiting who can read our works when they are placed behind a paywall by the publisher. Individuals also will find themselves losing the right to reuse parts of their own works in future projects unless they get explicit permission from the new copyright holders.

Giving up the copyright to your works also influences our institutions and libraries. Publishers take advantage of their newfound exclusive rights to distribute your works by charging readers for access. Academic research is typically unique and can’t be easily substituted by other works which makes it difficult for libraries to limit journal purchasing. The top five commercial journal publishers can account for up to 50-70% of publications, depending on the discipline, and because they don’t have to pay authors for the copyright, they have profit margins ranging from 28-38.9%. It’s a lucrative business and it's hurting library budgets. In 2016, Canadian university libraries spent $260,000,000 on journal subscriptions alone. These titles get more expensive each year, increasing faster than inflation and making it difficult for libraries to collect the resources people need.

All is not lost, however, and we can learn a lesson from Taylor Swift by giving extra value and attention to the copyright that we so easily give away. Here are some easy things that you can do to take back control (and something that an academic librarian can help you with):
  1. Publish in Gold Open Access journals
    Journals that make their articles free for all to read and share are Gold Open Access. These types of journals also allow authors to retain the copyright to their works, and license the articles under a Creative Commons license, allowing for easy sharing. 

    Most of these journals are free to publish in, but some do make authors pay an "article publication fee". Check to see if the Library offers a discount on the publication fee first, and then consider other alternatives such as self-archiving.
  2. Self-archive a copy of your work in an institutional repository
    If you are unable to publish in a Gold Open Access journal, you may still be able to deposit a version of the work in an institutional repository yourself. Increasingly, publishers are permitting authors to self-archive the peer-reviewed, but not-yet-formatted version of their articles in an institutional repository (you can use Sherpa Romeo to see Open Access policies for journals). In this scenario, you will retain the right to distribute the work in a repository, which makes it freely available to others on the internet.

    If the publisher doesn’t explicitly allow this, it doesn't hurt to reach out and ask about this before your sign a copyright license (SPARC has some good resources on this).
  3. Make your data, figures, and other research outputs available freely
    Use an open and free to use data repository, such as figshare or Dataverse, to upload and share your data, figures, and other research outputs. By doing so, you will be making your research more visible and accessible, enabling others to replicate and build on your work. Using open data repositories ensures that these resources are not held behind paywalls and are used by others in the scientific community – and not commercial publishers.
  4. Use explicit and visible copyright licenses on your shared works
    When sharing your works – whether they be articles, presentations, figures, or other materials – clearly display a copyright license so that others will know how to use them. As the creator of these works, you will have inherited copyright over these materials and others may not use them without your permission.

    To promote an academic environment of sharing knowledge, and building on this knowledge, you should select an appropriate copyright license so others can re-use and adapt your materials. The Creative Commons offers many such licenses that are easy to use and interpret.

There are similarities in how copyright is used and exploited for profit in many sectors – including music and academia. For perhaps too long now, we have stuck with the status quo in publishing by transferring our copyright to publishers without as much as a second thought. Taylor Swift is demonstrating that we can think about copyright more critically, and consider all of the options that we have with our works. We shouldn't be afraid to take control over how we use and transfer our copyright. This can be a new chapter in how we value these rights and is our chance to begin again.
Roger Reka is a collections librarian at the Leddy Library, University of Windsor. This blog post is shared under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license.
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