eish! spoke to Prof Klaus Beiter, associate professor at the NWU’s Faculty of Law, about points to ponder concerning digital copyright.


Q: Why should academics be aware of digital copyright?

A: It is important to remember that copyright exists in any form in which you manifest your ideas if you invested “skill, labour or judgment” into creating them. This includes lectures (also the oral presentation), study material, presentations and research.


Knowing your rights and being alert are key to protecting your copyright, as information in the digital environment can be disseminated quickly, easily and on a large scale.


Q: What about copyright when you publish your teaching and research information?

A: As an academic you always own the copyright in what your write. In some instances, however, there is a transfer of copyright when such research or work is published – in both the analogue and digital environments. A transfer can only occur through written and signed contracts with publishers or the university.


Be alert to what kind of contracts you enter into with publishers. One way of publishing your content is open access publishing which is a good way to transfer ideas to a larger audience while retaining many rights to use your texts.


Another is where your information remains behind a paywall, which usually limits large-scale access to it.


You should know how you want to publish your content and what the implications are, as each way has its own rules and copyright stipulations. Open access is often expensive, but the university may contribute towards costs.


Q: What about copyright when you write something for your employer?

A: Although the usual rule is that when you write something for an employer, the employer owns the copyright, the exception by common law in the university context is that the academic (and not the university) owns the copyright.


The content that you create as an academic belongs to you – universities can’t make general policy rules stating that the ownership belongs to them.


Claiming ownership of what an academic produces, is in conflict with academic freedom which is protected in Section 16 of the Constitution. Once the university owns “your” text, it could also change (and censor) it.


Q: How do you guard against copyright infringement?

A: The best way is to alert others that you are the owner of the content and that it is copyrighted. This might make it easier for you to take steps against individuals or platforms, should your information appear on the internet.


In the end it remains your responsibility as the content owner to make sure that your information is protected.


Safeguarding in advance is better than trying to address it once copyright has already been infringed.

Digital media are very effective tools for communicating ideas but they can also be a web of pitfalls where content can be easily plagiarised, shared or used without giving credit to its owners.


for academics and researchers



How to safeguard your intellectual property


  • Always make it clear that you own the copyright in your work. Make it visible in a written form on presentations, during lectures and in study guides. Make it clear that lectures may not be recorded or posted on the internet without your consent.


  • Be cautious when making information publicly available on the internet. The moment you do that, you have exhausted your copyright on the internet and the information may readily be held to have become part of the public domain. As an author you can then not prevent its use.


  • In the field of publishing, you as an academic should make sure you retain sufficient rights to allow you to reuse your content. Every publisher has their own rules about what they allow and this can be restrictive.


  • When text books are commissioned, ensure in the agreement what the respective rights of each party are and that those rights are protected.





Online copyright has never been more important to the creators of unique content, such as academics and researchers.  Safeguarding your intellectual property is especially relevant considering the funding and the countless hours (and in many instances, years) of hard work that go into creating research and academic outputs.