In 1990, the Royal Society reacted to the 1988 Copyright Act by changing its approach to copyright: rather than holding copyright jointly between author and Society, it would begin to require authors to transfer copyright to the Society.
Given the nature of the Society as an organisation, this should not be understood as the Society pioneering a shift towards copyright transfer. Rather, the Society was following wider trends in academic publishing.
Historically, the Royal Society had taken a relaxed attitude to copyright, encouraging the reprinting (with attribution!) of its articles throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (as we will show in a forthcoming article). In the 1950s, the Society had led the organisation of a voluntary code of conduct among learned publishers, to permit educational photocopying of articles; and in the 1960s, it had insisted that copyright should be retained by the author (or perhaps by a board of academics, representing the scholarly community – but certainly not signed over to a commercial publisher).
The 1990 recommendation arose from the Society’s Publications Management Committee (PMC), a newly established committee to which the Society’s Council now delegated strategic decisions about the journals and future of publications.
The justification was framed in the light of seeking ‘maximum protection’ from the recent 1988 Copyright Act. It was believed that owning copyright would give the Society control over ‘secondary rights, such as reprinting, reproduction and electronic document delivery’. This attitude reflected the fact that journal publishing had come to be managed as a potential source of income for the Society, rather than a service to the scholarly community. And new technologies, along with new legislation, made it possible to make income from publications in a range of new ways.
Since then, the Society’s increasing involvement in the open access movement has led to a change of policy, and the use of a licence to publish (rather than copyright transfer). Currently, authors either publish under a CC-BY licence; or retain their copyright while granting the Society exclusive rights to publish/distribute the article.