Here is an excerpt from a generic Copyright Transfer Agreement from Elsevier
I hereby assign to the Copyright Owner the copyright in the manuscript... and any supplemental tables, illustrations or other information submitted therewith that are intended for publication as part of the manuscript (the “Article”) in all forms and media (whether now known or hereafter developed), throughout the world, in all languages, for the full term of copyright, effective when and if the article is accepted for publication. This transfer includes the right to provide the Article in electronic and online forms and systems.
...the author undersigned hereby transfers, assigns, or otherwise conveys all copyright ownership, which also encompasses electronic distribution of the work, to the AOTA. ...
... I agree to the following license agreement:
Anyone is free:
Under the following conditions: Attribution
Authors are the copyright holders of their work from the moment of creation until they decide to transfer rights to someone else, such as a publisher. Authors may lawfully transfer all, some, or none of their copyrights.
When an author submits an article to a journal publisher, the publisher requires the author to sign a Copyright Transfer Agreement. The Copyright Transfer Agreement is legally binding and grants the publisher either non-exclusive or exclusive rights to distribute the article. When the publisher is granted exclusive rights to the article, no one, including the author, can re-use the article for any other purposes without seeking permission from the publisher.
It is important to read and understand the copyright transfer agreement in order for the author to know what rights the author retains and what rights the publisher retains. If the rights the author wants to retain are not included in the CTA, then the author should modify the CTA by inserting his/her own language into the Agreement or by using this Author Addendum
The time to read and make changes to the Copyright Transfer Agreement is before it is signed. Once the agreement is signed, the likelihood of getting the publisher to modify the author rights is minimal. Copyright lasts 95 years if owned by a corporate entity. Once a copyright transfer agreement is signed over to a publisher, the publisher gets to control all of the access in all formats (known or unknown!) for a very long time.
What to look for when you read a Copyright Transfer Agreement:
What rights is the publisher requiring you to transfer?
Is the publisher requiring you give exclusive rights or non-exclusive rights to the publisher? Exclusive rights are the most restrictive.
The time to negotiate the Copyright Transfer Agreement is at the time a signature is required for the transfer. Some publishers require the CTA at the time of manuscript submission. Request that you wait until the paper has been accepted. If you must sign upon submission, be sure to read the transfer agreement and negotiate your terms in the event the manuscript is accepted. Some journals have an online submission process that requires that you accept the publisher's terms and don't give you any chance to negotiate or include an author's addendum. If this is the case, copy the agreement and save it, edit it with the the rights you want to and send your copyright transfer by email instead.
What rights does the CTA permit the author to retain?
Are there rights the author wants to retain that the CTA does not include? If so, those rights need to be inserted before signing the agreement
How does the CTA address co-authors?
Does the CTA have provisions for government employee or work-for-hire authors who represent their institution? What are they?
Be wary of an agreement in which the publisher considers you as the author a work for hire by the publisher. Seek advice if you see this provision since the agreement might prohibit you from publishing future works with other publishers!
Does the CTA address the NIH Mandate? Will the publisher submit the article to PubMed Central on the author's behalf? What version of the manuscript will the publisher submit to PMC?
Keep in mind, it does not hurt to ask for rights you want to retain. If the publisher says no, you can decide whether you want to continue with the submission. At least you will have a thorough understanding of the terms to which you agreed.
Lastly, you must save a copy of your Copyright Transfer Agreement for future reference!