Copyright Essentials for Graduate Students

Before you begin your thesis or dissertation, you should familiarize yourself with the basics of copyright law.  Copyright law is important to you, both in understanding how and when you can use copyrighted third-party content in your thesis or dissertation, and in understanding the rights that protect you as the author of your thesis or dissertation. The following information is provided as a general guide to copyright.  In addition, you may wish to consult Copyright Law & Graduate Research:  New Media, New Rights, and Your New Dissertation by Kenneth D. Crews, available free of charge through UMI, or some of the additional copyright resources listed at the end of this document.

Please contact if you have questions or need additional information.

In U.S. law (US Code, Title 17), copyright is the legal right to control certain uses of a work in order to maximize the benefits from that work.

  • As a student, you own the copyright to your thesis or dissertation under University policy.
  • Copyright comprises a “bundle of rights” to copy, modify/rework, distribute, publicly display and publicly perform a protected work.  You hold these rights and so can restrict others from using your work without your permission.
  • You may need to get permission from other copyright owners if you want to copy their work in your thesis or dissertation.
  • The Copyright Act creates the possibility of lawsuits, damages, and other sanctions for copyright infringements.
  • U.S. copyright law includes many important limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright holders. Among these exceptions is the Fair Use doctrine (U.S. Code, Title 17, Section 107) which supports many educational and scholarly needs.  Fair Use must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and involves a careful balancing of four statutory factors within the Copyright Act, as described below.
  • Other exceptions to the exclusive rights of copyright holders are designed to support teaching, learning, library activities, and accommodations for persons with disabilities.  For more on these important copyright exceptions, see the copyright resources links at the end of this document.

As an original work of authorship, your thesis or dissertation is automatically protected by copyright from the moment of its creation.  While you are not required to register your thesis or dissertation with the US Copyright Office to secure or maintain copyright protection, registration provides a much broader range of remedies in the event your work is infringed.  For this reason, copyright registration is highly recommended.

  • Your thesis or dissertation is protected by copyright the moment you fix it into a “tangible medium” such as paper, computer file or film.
  • Under U.S. law, the copyright in your thesis or dissertation lasts for the span of your life plus 70 years.
  • You may register your work online via the U.S. Copyright Office’s user-friendly website for a $35 fee.  Copyright registration does not require legal assistance.  For more information, see the Copyright Office circular Make Sure Your Application Will be Acceptable.
  • Other parties offer services to register your work with the Copyright Office in your name for an extra fee.
  • You are not required to place a copyright notice on your thesis or dissertation to secure its copyright status.  However, doing so is good practice because it informs the public that the work is protected by copyright, identifies the copyright owner, and shows the year of first publication.
  • The proper format for a copyright notice is © (the letter C in a circle), or the word “Copyright”; the year of first publication; and the name of the copyright owner. For example, © 2007 Jane Doe.

If you want to include others’ work in your thesis or dissertation (for example art images, charts, drawings, photographs, computer programs, music, etc.) you must determine whether your intended use requires you to seek permission from the copyright holder.

Your use of others’ work may be authorized under the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright Law.

The Copyright Act itself gives Fair Use examples including criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, and scholarship.  However, the Act goes on to establish four factors against which any specific use must be assessed based on specific facts.  The only “definitive” determination of whether a use is fair would come from a court.

Section 107 of the Copyright Act describes these four factors as:

  • Purpose and character of the Intended Use
  • Nature of the copyrighted Work
  • Amount and substance of the portion being used
  • Effect on the market or value of the copyrighted work

The level of access that will be afforded to the finished work can play a significant role in determining whether the use of third-party materials is likely to be considered fair.  Any distribution on the Web or as a formal publication involves a much more complex assessment than distribution within a closed classroom environment.

In making a Fair Use determination, you may wish to use a Fair Use analysis tool or checklist.  You should print and retain the results as documentation of your good faith effort to make a Fair Use determination.  Several examples are available online, including:

  • If you plan to use images, you may want to consult the recent Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research and Study from the Visual Resources Association.  This statement includes a section on the Reproduction of Images in Theses and Dissertations. VRA concludes that “the inclusion of reference images … in academic dissertations or theses is critical to advancing our collective knowledge in the arts and sciences, and should be consistent with fair use” (p. 15).  Please read the complete statement carefully for VRA’s recommendations on how you can best position yourself to assert fair use when using images in your thesis or dissertation.
  • For more information, see the additional links and resources on Fair Use listed at the end of this document.

If you determine that your use does not qualify as a Fair Use, you need to request permission from the copyright holder or license the work via a permissions agency.

  • The permissions process may require several steps, the first being to locate the copyright owner. The copyright owner may be the author or artist, his or her heirs, a publisher, a museum, or other entity.
  • In the case of reproductions of cultural objects such as paintings or manuscripts, the copyright holder may not be the same as the institution that owns the physical item.   For example, the U.Va. Library typically does not own the copyright to manuscript materials housed in the Library’s Special Collections.
  • The photographer who has created the reproduction of an image can also have an independent copyright interest from an artist or owner of a work whose image you want to use.
  • If you need to request permission, useful advice about the process is available in How to Request Permission section of Ken Crews’s guide and the Permissions section of the Columbia Copyright Advisory Office website.
  • A permissions agency such as the Copyright Clearance Center may be able to simplify the permissions process, but will charge a fee.

Finally, be careful that you do not confuse copyright compliance with issues of plagiarism and academic integrity.

  • Copyright infringement is a violation of the copyrights of another as granted by law, while plagiarism is an ethical and often institutional policy offense.
  • Even if your use of another’s work is allowable under copyright law, you may be committing plagiarism if you use the work or ideas of another person and fail to attribute them properly.

Additional Information

Here are some additional online guides to copyright.  Some of the information is specific to the universities that published these guides, but the general information is applicable.

Determining the Copyright Status of a Work

Multimedia (Images, Film, Music, etc)

Fair Use and Digital Rights

Please contact if you have questions or need additional information.

Updated by Madelyn Wessel, General Counsel’s Office, and Anne Houston, University Libraries, October 2012.  Portions of this document were adapted, with permission, from Copyright Essentials for Graduate Students, Texas A&M University Libraries.