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Copyright and Fair Use / Copyright Concerns of Students

A review of current copyright issues and fair use guidance, with a focus on the work of theological librarians and the teaching and research activities of the institutions they serve.

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Using Copyright Works of Others in Thesis/Dissertation

You should assume that anything produced by someone other than yourself is protected by copyright unless you determine otherwise (e.g. determine that the term of copyright protection has expired and the work is in the public domain). The types of works protected by copyright include books, articles, newspapers, photographs, music, movies, software, and even things you find on the internet.

Use of works protected by copyright in your dissertation or thesis will need either permission or a fair use justification. Fair use is an exception to the copyright holder's exclusive rights. In order to use copyrighted works under a claim of fair use, the following factors must be weighed: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for non-profit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. For more on fair use, click on the Fair Use tab above.

Fair use provides an indispensable opportunity for scholarship, since so much of research involves building upon the insights of others. Quotations from other writers are a regular part of most scholarship and are generally consider a classic example of fair use. There is no exact rule about how much one may quote and remain within the boundaries of fair use. Various guidelines that offer specific numbers of words or lines are advisory and do not have the force of law. In general, quotations from the work of others should be no longer than is necessary to support the scholarly point you wish to make. When you are subjecting the quoted material to scholarly criticism or comment, you have more leeway for fair use than in many other situations, but you should be sure that you do not use more of someone else's work than is necessary for the argument that you are making in your own thesis/dissertation.

In the case of images, you should be sure that the pictures you reproduce are closely tied to your research goals and are each made the subject of specific scholarly comment. If you use a large number of copyright-protected images by a single artist, or in some other way threaten to supersede the market for the original works, it is wise to seek permission. If you have flexibility in the final selection of your images, search for images that are 1) in the public domain, or 2) made available for reuse via a Creative Commons license. Such images can be incorporated into your dissertation without permission or concern for fair use.

If you determine that permission is necessary, the first step is to locate the copyright holder. This may not always be the author; sometimes copyright ownership is transferred to a publisher or to an author's estate if he or she is deceased. Once you determine who to request permission from, it is best to send a written letter of request. An email letter is sufficient. It is best to get written documentation of permissions. You should retain copies of all permissions in your files. 

Finally, remember to always provide proper attribution to the sources of the works you incorporate into your thesis or dissertation. Proper attribution is absolutely required; that’s a part of academic integrity and good scholarship. Copyright permission, if necessary, is an entirely separate matter and does not obviate the need for attribution.

From Dissertation to Publication - FAQ on Student Author Rights

Who owns the copyright of a thesis or dissertation?

You do! The copyright of a thesis or dissertation belongs to you as the author. Under the U.S. Copyright Act, works are automatically copyrighted at the moment they are fixed in a tangible form, including residing on your computer's hard drive. You continue to own that copyright until you transfer it to another party.  A transfer of copyright must be in writing. If parts of a work have already been published and copyright in those other works was transferred to someone else (e.g. a publisher), copyright of those parts remains with whom it was transferred to.

Do I need to register my copyright?

You do not need to register with the Copyright Office in order to enjoy copyright protection. Such protection is automatic, coming into effect at the moment a work is fixed in a tangible form. However, registration has certain advantages.  First, if your work is registered you have strong evidence that you are the author of the work and the owner of its copyright. Also, registration is necessary to enforce a copyright against an infringer or plagiarist. For full detail, read the U.S. Copyright Office circular "Copyright Basics"

Can I use previously published articles of my own in my work?

It depends. You will need to review the agreement you signed with the publisher of our previously published article. Most agreements require you to transfer your copyright to the publisher. If this is the case, you must request permission from the publisher to "reprint" the article as a chapter in your dissertation. However, some agreements specify that you retain the right to reprint the article in your dissertation. The chart below details several publishers' policies with respect to reusing your own previously published work in a thesis or dissertation; however, you should always review the terms of any agreement you signed.

What is open access, and how does it apply to my thesis or dissertation?

Articles, books, theses and dissertations are said to be "open access" when they are "digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions." By making publications open access, the widest sharing of ideas and research results is made possible, which is generally done either by publishing in open access journals or depositing them in open access repositories such as an institutional repository.

Will journal or book publishers consider publishing my work if it is based on an open access thesis or dissertation?

Recent surveys show that a majority of journal editors and university presses would accept submissions of articles and book manuscripts that were based upon theses or dissertations, even if they are available in an open access repository. This is in part because most publishers consider theses and dissertations to be "student work" that will require substantial editing and revision before being published in article or book form. The chart below summarizes the policies of some publishers regarding the publication of new works from a thesis or dissertation.

Publisher Policies - Publishing a Dissertation or Reusing One's Published Work in a Dissertation

Publisher Student Reuse of Own Previously
Published Articles
Publication of Thesis/Dissertation Content
Brill VARIES. Each Brill publication has a different policy on reuse of published content. Student authors must complete a rights/permission request through Copyright Clearance Center to reuse their entire article in their dissertation. See Brill's Rights and Permissions page for more information. Consult the Brill Author's Guide for guidance on submitting a dissertation as a manuscript. There is no specific guidance on whether deposit of a dissertation or thesis in an open access repository is considered prior publication.
Cambridge University Press YESMust acknowledge the original publication, and include a copyright notice and the phrase “reprinted with permission.” VARIES. Each journal has own policy and must be contacted prior to submission to determine whether will be treated as a prior publication.
DeGruyter VARIES. Each DeGruyter publication has a different policy on reuse of published content. Student authors must complete a rights/permission request through Copyright Clearance Center to reuse their entire article in their dissertation. See DeGruyter's Rights and Permissions page for more information. YES. In the field of theology and religion, DeGruyter does accept dissertations as manuscripts (see author guidelines for more information). Check with the publisher, however, to verify whether deposit in an open access repository is considered prior publication.
Eisenbrauns YES. Permission must still be requested but will generally be granted without charge. Proposals must be submitted before any work is accepted. Be sure to include details regarding your dissertation, including whether it is currently available in an open access repository, and what, if any, modifications you intend to make to it.
Fortress Press Permissions for reprint must be processed through Copyright Clearance Center. Fortress does not provide any guidance on whether students may include their own previously published works in their thesis or dissertation. Fortress actively seeks to publish student scholarship under its "Emerging Scholars" imprint; however, they do not provide any guidance whether deposit in an open access repository would be considered prior publication.
Mohr Siebeck YES. But only if it has been one year since publication if a journal article or two years after publication if a chapter in a book. See the Mohr Siebeck permissions page for more information. No specific guidance is given as to treatment of a thesis or dissertation as a prior publication. Contact the individual journal or book editor for further guidance.
Oxford University Press YES. But only if the thesis or dissertation will not be commercially published. Does not have a policy on acceptance of thesis or dissertation. Contact individual journal prior to submission.
Peeters Publishers No guidance is available online. Contact the individual publication or review your publication agreement to determine policy on reuse of published article in a thesis or dissertation. VARIES. Contact the individual publication you wish to submit a manuscript to for policy regarding treatment of a thesis or dissertation as prior publication if it has been deposited in an open access repository.
SAGE YES. Per publisher policy, the published version may be included in a thesis or dissertation. VARIES. Per publisher policy, "excerpts or material from your dissertation that have not been through peer review will generally be eligible for publication. However, if the excerpt from the dissertation included in your manuscript is the same or substantially the same as any previously published work, the editor may determine that it is not suitable for publication in the journal."
Taylor & Francis YES. However, you may only reuse the original manuscript or the accepted manuscript; you cannot use the version of record/published version in your thesis or dissertation. Taylor and Francis provides extensive guidance to student authors on how to publish from their dissertation or thesis. Treatment as prior publication is not discussed; therefore, prospective authors should contact the journal they seek to submit to for policy.
Wiley YES. However, reasonable measures must be taken to prevent further open sharing online (e.g., deposit in an open access repository of a dissertation containing the full text of a Wiley article authored by the student would be prohibited) YES. Wiley's publication ethics policy states that it does not have concern with publishing content included in a thesis or dissertation that has been included in an institution's archives. If your thesis or dissertation has been deposited in an open access repository, there may be a concern on the part of the publisher, so this should be disclosed.
Wipf & Stock Permissions for reprint must be processed through Copyright Clearance Center. Wipf and Stock does not provide any guidance on whether students may include their own previously published works in their thesis or dissertation. Contact the publisher for assistance with determining whether your thesis or dissertation has been shared or published in a way that would be considered prior publication and thus ineligible for commercial publication.

This guide compiled from a Libguide of the same name by Christine Fruin at