Using copyrighted material in your thesis

  • Public Domain and the Creative Commons

    A work in the public domain is available to the public generally, and not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright. Anyone can use a public domain work, without obtaining permission or paying a fee. It’s not always apparent whether a work is in the public domain, but Cornell University publishes a chart to help determine this. One rule of thumb: American material created before 1900 is often (not always!) in the public domain.

    Increasingly, scholars are making use of the Creative Commons to identify works that may be freely reused, especially for educational or nonprofit purposes. Look for Creative Commons licenses on websites, images, or papers and learn how you can license your own work using Creative Commons.

  • Understanding Fair Use

    If you are repurposing copyrighted material in your thesis, it may be permitted in accordance with fair use. Fair use provides some flexibility for scholars, ensuring that there are some kinds of uses of copyrighted material that do not require permission or payment. There are no easy rules for fair use – it depends on the nature of the material, how much of it you are using, and whether you are affecting the potential market for the copyrighted work. The good news is that the use of copyrighted material for educational purposes is more likely to be considered fair use. The criteria for determining what is encompassed by fair use is detailed by the U.S. Copyright Office.

  • Your Responsibilities

    It is your responsibility to determine whether you are using copyright-protected material in your thesis. If your use of this material extends beyond fair use, you may need to secure written permission of the copyright owner and submit evidence of the permission with your thesis. Copyrighted material may include images, tables, drawings, photographs, figures, maps, graphs, sound files, video material, data sets, or large portions of text.

    It is important to cite copyrighted material correctly. See the library’s citation guide for more information.

    You may need to request permission to reprint/reproduce copyrighted material from an author, publisher, or repository (library, archive or museum), depending on who owns the rights. Write to the copyright holder well in advance, describing exactly which item(s) you are reproducing and how they will be used in your thesis. Be sure to let the copyright owner know that your thesis will be available online.

  • Using images

    If you are using images of material held in a private or museum collection, contact the individual or museum for permission to reproduce the image. This is true even if you took the photograph of an object in a private or museum collection; you own the copyright to your photograph, but the museum or artist may still control rights to images of the object.

  • Using interviews

    The interviewee in an oral history owns the copyright to his/her interview. If you are conducting oral history interviews as part of your thesis please obtain a signed release form for each interviewee allowing you to use the interview and publish portions of it in your thesis. Contact us to see sample release forms.

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