Even if you transfer all rights to a publisher in your agreement, that transfer does not have to be unending, regardless of the wording of the contract. Under section 203 of the Copyright Act, you have the right to “terminate” the grant of rights to a publisher after a period of time and have the intellectual rights in your work transferred back to you.
This termination right would go into effect during a 5-year period beginning 35 years after the grant of rights to the publisher, or if you have granted publication rights, beginning either 35 years after publication or 40 years after the grant of rights, whichever comes first.
For more information terminating publisher rights, including the requirements for claiming this right, see the Columbia Law School "Keep Your Copyright" guide on Termination.
Another option for regaining rights that have been transferred to a publisher is through rights reversion.
Many publishing contracts, particularly for books, contain a reversion clause allowing the author to request that rights be reverted back to him once the book has been out of print or otherwise unavailable on the market for a period of time.
Even if you have a contract that lacks a reversion clause, it is possible to negotiate rights reversion with a publisher if you find that you work is currently out of circulation.
For more information about regaining rights to published work through reversion, the Authors Alliance provides a comprehensive resource in its guide Understanding Rights Reversion. (PDF)
Exclusive vs. Non Exclusive Rights
Basics of Publishing Agreements
A publication agreement is a legal contract between you & your publisher. Among other things, it determines
who is the copyright owner: an agreement may transfer ownership from you to your publisher.
what rights you retain over your work: if the publisher becomes the copyright owner, the agreement can still grant the author certain rights to use the work & share it with others.
Understanding & Negotiating Your Agreement
What You Can Do
Transfer copyright but reserve some rights: Work to modify the language of the publishing contract to transfer copyright to the publisher while still retaining a non-exclusive license to reuse your work. See also the SPARC Author Addendum.
Keep copyright and transfer limited rights to the publisher: Work to modify the language of the publishing contract to grant a non-exclusive or exclusive license of limited rights to the publisher.
Submit work to publishers with more open copyright policies: Many publishers are liberalizing their policies to help achieve a balance between their interests and those of their authors. SHERPA/RoMEOmaintains a list of publishers allowing deposition of published work in repositories.
The Scholar's Copyright Addendum Engine (sponsored by SPARC and the Science Commons) will help you generate a PDF form that you can attach to a journal publisher's copyright agreement to ensure that you retain certain rights.
Quick look up tool for publisher copyright policies & self-archiving
Rights to Think About
As demonstrated above, you can assign your copyright to the publisher, and at the same time reserve some specific rights for yourself. Similarly, you can negotiate to retain copyright while assigning certain rights to the publisher. Whichever path you choose, it is important to understand the full “bundle of rights” involved in copyright before agreeing to give any of them away.
Below are some of the rights you might want to consider retaining when negotiating a publishing agreement:
The right to make reproductions for use in teaching, scholarship, and research
The right to borrow portions of the work for use in other works
The right to make derivative works
The right to alter the work, add to the work, or update the content of the work
The right to be identified as the author of the work
The right to be informed of any uses, reproductions, or distributions of the work
The right to perform or display the work
The right to include all or part of the work in a future thesis, dissertation, or other scholarly publication
The right to make oral presentation of the material in any forum
The right to make materials available to underdeveloped nations for humanitarian purposes
The right to archive and preserve the work as part of either a personal or institutional initiative, e.g. on your own web site or in an institutional repository
The right to claim ownership in every draft and pre-print version of the work