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Scholarly Communication


Are there any copyright issues I need to consider before making my thesis Open Access?

If your thesis includes content created by others, you may well need to seek permission before uploading it to the OA repository Apollo.  Copyright held by someone other than yourself is known as third party copyright. Under the statutory ‘fair dealing for the purposes of illustration for instruction’ copyright exception, portions of copyright works may be reproduced in an examinable paper such as thesis or dissertation provided the copying is fair dealing, which means copying only a portion of a work that is necessary for the immediate purposes in the paper, which will not normally be the whole work.  The author and source of the work must be acknowledged unless to do so is impractical. The exception applies to those extracts, excerpts or quotations from works included in a dissertation or thesis for examination and deposit in unpublished form in a library (if applicable, e.g. deposit of PhD dissertations in the University Library), but not their publication after examination, in hard copy or online, including in an online repository such as Apollo, the University’s institutional digital repository.  In other words, the exception applies to use of short extracts in a dissertation that is to be examined but not to subsequent publication of that dissertation, including online. It is strongly advised that you clear copyright and obtain permissions for use in the University's repository Apollo from third party rights holders as you gather your resources, rather than leaving it to the point where you write up your thesis. See below for information about how you go about seeking permissions.

Managing third party copyright in theses

We acknowledge that third party copyright is a major issue for some disciplines. Images in a thesis that is submitted to the Library for cataloguing do not require clearance because they are considered to be ‘unpublished work’. However that situation changes if a thesis is made open access, where permission is required from the copyright owner(s). Information about what is permissible under fair dealing is listed here. We have some information on third party copyright in theses on these webpages


The Board of Graduate studies have stated that theses will be held under embargo for six months in the first instance with an automatic extension to two years if the author requests this. After that the work will be made open access. In the case where theses contain a large amount of third party material it is understood that obtaining permissions would be onerous (and potentially impossible). 


The OSC will place two versions of the work in the repository – where third party material is redacted from the Open Access version. This means the text is available without copyright concerns. The full research version of the thesis is still available for request under the same conditions as now, where the requestor signs an agreement that their use of the work is for research purposes only. This absolves the need for permissions. 


It is likely that we are in a transition period. This new requirement has been introduced to people very advanced through their PhD and retrospective permission seeking could be an unreasonable expectation. However into the future, ideally new students will approach their research from the outset with an awareness of the requirements of permissions for third party copyright. The Library is interested in hearing how we can help departments with this, through provision of education and training, and services such as templates.


What kinds of material might be covered by third party copyright?

  • Long extracts of text

The law says that less than a substantial part of a third party work may be copied or quoted without permission or infringement of copyright. Unfortunately as substantial is not defined it will depend on the significance of the passage within the whole item. For example, if you use a long extract of text or an illustration or figure, and it is integral to your argument, then this might count as criticism, providing the use is fair. However, this is not clear cut.

You can quote from any type of work, for example you can reproduce an extract of text, or an excerpt from a performance or recording, providing the use is fair. Unlike criticism and review this allows for illustrative use of extracts.

  • Illustrations, tables and figures

If you have used an illustration purely as decoration, then this would certainly need to have express permission. However, if you have used an image or figure as part of your argument, or to illustrate a point, then this may count under one of the exceptions detailed above, and you may not need permission if it is a single instance. If you have reused multiple figures from the same source then this may well be considered as harming the commercial interests of the rights holder, in which case you would almost certainly need to obtain permission. As always if you are in any doubt as to the rights or license situation for images, always seek permission for inclusion from the rights holder.

  • Photographs and images

These can be an especially tricky area of copyright, as even if you were the original photographer, you may be taking photographs of materials in which someone else holds rights (e.g. artworks in a museum). It is also important to remember that a photograph on the Internet or a Website is likely to be copyrighted even if it doesn’t explicitly state this fact. Use of copyrighted images in your thesis falls under ‘fair dealing for the purposes of illustration for instruction’ educational use, if the requirements of this copyright exception are met, including as long as they are not used purely for illustrative purposes. Submitting your thesis for assessment in hard copy therefore shouldn’t be a problem. However, when you deposit your thesis in Apollo this counts as further distribution and the fair dealing exemption for educational use no longer applies. The recommended course of action is to remove any copyrighted images from the digital version of your thesis prior to upload and include a note in place of the image. Researchers wishing to view the image can request a hard copy from the library.

  • Maps and charts

If you have used a map from organisations like the Ordnance Survey or Digimap, check the relevant licence to see if the use is permitted. If you have obtained the map from a book, check who owns the copyright in the map, this should be indicated either with the map, or at the beginning or end of the book.

Some older maps or charts may be out of copyright (for instance, Ordnance Survey maps over 50 years old are out of copyright), but never assume this is the case for all items, and always fully acknowledge the source of the material. If the rights are unclear it is usually better practice to take the steps towards seeking permission than risk inclusion of items that may still potentially breach copyright. Remember, if you have exercised due diligence in seeking permission, then you may take the low risk option of including it in your thesis, provided you keep documentation of your efforts.

  • Video and audio, musical scores

Contact the Open Access team to ask advice if you are using musical scores, audiovisual material, multimedia, or anything not mentioned above. These items may well include multiple sources of copyright (e.g. music inside a video), and may need a meticulous permissions approach to several different rights holders for each item. As always be prepared to factor in a number of weeks to ensure clearance of items where you think there may well be multiple copyright issues.

  • Work you have authored and published

Publishing a portion of your thesis prior to its submission is a common and well established academic practice. However, you may need to consider carefully your rights to re-use your own work within your thesis at this point, if any rights have been gifted or otherwise assigned to a publisher.

If any portion of your thesis has been already published, perhaps as a journal article, you must check the agreement that you signed with the publisher. Even if you assigned copyright to the publisher, the agreement may still allow you to use the material in your thesis, so look for any educational exemption clause. If it does not expressly note this or you are unable to find the agreement then you must directly approach the publisher for permission.

How do I seek permission from the copyright holder?

You will need to obtain permission from the rights holder.  If you are not sure who they are try contacting the publisher of the work, they will usually have a Rights and Permissions department. If granted, you will need to include details about this at the appropriate place in your thesis, e.g. ‘Permission to reproduce this [detail of content] has been granted by [rights holder information].’ Letters or emails confirming permissions should be kept secure and made available for consultation upon request. Some information about the process can be found on the University's Legal Services website.

If permission is not granted, it is possible to work around this by limiting access to sections of the thesis or by removing sections of the thesis completely. Contact the OA team for further advice.


Some of the material on this page has been adapted from 'Keeping Your Thesis Legal' by Gareth Johnson, Tania Rowlett, Rob Melocha and Brett Dodgson from the University of Leicester. The original document, which contains more detailed information about copyright issues and obtaining permissions, can be found here.

The material on this page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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