Dear Rich: I am a university professor. Two French colleagues organized a conference in 2017 and invited me to speak at it. After the conference, they said they wanted to publish our talks (expanded into articles) in a book, and they told us we should start to revise our talks. Several months later, they wrote to say that a Swiss-based academic journal had agreed to publish the essays as a special issue. I responded to say "sounds good," and I submitted my essay to the two French colleagues, who copyedited it, and I did not hear another word for months until a PDF of the final version of my article arrived in my inbox. I was surprised to see that the article was Copyright 2019 by the Swiss publisher and that I was authorized to distribute no more than 25 copies of this PDF, and that it was not permissible to put the PDF on the Internet. I wrote to the Swiss publisher and asked on what basis they claimed the copyright, given that I never signed an agreement with them. The head of the press cheerfully admitted that there is no signed agreement of any kind and that they claim the copyright by fiat, simply as a consequence of publishing the text ("We pay the printer"). It seems to me that they have illegally usurped (or tried to usurp) my copyright. Am I correct about this?
Yes, you're correct. The concept of claiming copyright because "we pay the printer" went out with quill pens and hoop skirts. To claim the copyright to your article (which many journals do), the Swiss would need to have acquired documentation: a written assignment agreement or a work-made-for-hire agreement.
Implied license. Under U.S. copyright law, you retain copyright ownership, and the Swiss publisher probably has an implied license to publish your article in the journal. Licenses can be implied from the parties' conduct and reasonable expectations. For example, if a written license expired, but the parties continued as if it hadn't, the license for the extended use would be implied. Your consent to publication was implied by your "sounds good" and by furnishing, revising, and copyediting your article. However, the implied license doesn't permit the Swiss journal to dictate the terms of your use and doesn't allow them to distribute the article in any way other than in the journal.
P.S. Dept. The Swiss publisher would be permitted to claim a compilation copyright in the journal. The compilation copyright does not protect the individual articles, but instead, it protects the particular selection and arrangement of those articles together in one journal.