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Copyright and Your Thesis or Dissertation

This guide answers common copyright questions related to theses and dissertations, including reusing your own and others' content.

Using Third-Party Materials in Your Thesis or Dissertation

If you use materials (such as text, images, sound recordings, etc.) created by a third party in your thesis or dissertation, you need to consider whether copyright law allows your use of those materials. Even when copyright permits your use of a work, contract law may prevent it. When you agree to terms of use in order to gain access to a copy of a work (such as a letter in an archive or a newspaper article in an online database), those terms also control what you can do with the work.

In some cases, even reusing your own published articles can raise copyright concerns, if you have transferred your copyright to someone else, like your publisher. For more information, see Reusing Your Published Work.

You can proceed without copyright permission if you are using something that is in the public domain. You also don't need permission if you are using it in a way that is not regulated by one of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights or is permitted by fair use or another user’s right. If none of these circumstances applies, you need a license to use the work. In some cases, an existing license may cover your use. In others, you will need to get a new license from the copyright holder.

In addition to the copyright issues, it is also vital to follow attribution norms within your discipline. For more information about the distinction between plagiarism and copyright infringement, see below.

Contracts at Libraries, Archives, and Museums

Some institutions require you to sign an agreement before accessing their collections. That agreement may limit your ability to use their materials. These agreements can be valid even when the materials are in the public domain or using the materials would qualify as fair use. For instance, if you agree to get permission from the institution before publishing any images of items from its collection, you are bound by that agreement.

To avoid trouble on this issue,

  • Ask up front what the terms are and whether you can use the materials in your thesis or dissertation;
  • Carefully read the terms of any agreements you sign; and
  • Keep a copy of the terms, noting the materials to which they apply.

Fair Use in Theses and Dissertations

Fair use allows certain uses of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. There are four factors to consider when determining whether your use is a fair one. You must consider all the factors, but not all the factors have to favor fair use for the use to be fair. The outline below explains how the fair use factors and their subfactors apply to using third-party material in a Penn State thesis or dissertation.

First Factor: "The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes"

  • Uses that fall under one of the favored purposes listed in the fair use statute (17 U.S.C. § 107) or have a nonprofit educational purpose will weigh in favor of fair use. Favored purposes include scholarship, research, criticism, and comment. Since uses in theses and dissertations often have these purposes, this subfactor favors fair use.

  • Uses that are commercial weigh against fair use. Most uses in theses and dissertations are not for commercial purposes. If you are writing a doctoral dissertation at Penn State, you will be required to license it to ProQuest for distribution. Because ProQuest is a commercial entity, you should consider this when evaluating fair use. Although commerciality weighs against fair use, other subfactors can outweigh that — commercial uses can still be fair.

  • Uses that are transformative weigh in favor of fair use. A use is transformative when the use adds new meaning or message to the original work, giving it a new purpose. For example, using advertisement images from the 1960s to discuss use of race in advertising is a transformative use, because the advertisements were originally created to sell products. Quoting another scholar's analysis of the advertisement would not necessarily be transformative, though it is still often fair use.

Second Factor: "The nature of the copyrighted work"

  • If the work used is creative, that will weigh against fair use. If the work used is factual, that will weigh in favor of fair use. The outcome of this subfactor varies depending on the work used.

  • If the work used is unpublished, that will weigh against fair use. However, the fair use statute explicitly states that the unpublished nature of a work will not bar fair use if the use is otherwise fair. The outcome of this subfactor varies depending on the work used.

Third Factor: "The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole"

  • Using all or much of the original work will weigh against fair use. The outcome of this subfactor varies depending on the use.

  • Using the most important part of the original work (the "heart") will weigh against fair use, even if it is only a small amount of the work. The outcome of this subfactor varies depending on the use.

  • The third factor is neutralized if the amount used is necessary for a transformative purpose, even if the entire original work is used. For instance, the third factor would be neutralized in the use of the advertisement described above if all of the advertisement has to be used in order to achieve the transformative use.

Fourth Factor: "The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work"

  • Uses that decrease demand for the original work by providing a substitute will weigh against fair use. In many cases, using a work in your thesis or dissertation will not provide a substitute for the original work, but the outcome of this subfactor can vary depending on the use.

  • Uses that decrease demand for the original work by criticizing it (as with a negative film review) have no impact on the fourth factor.

  • If the licensing market for the use you are making is "traditional, reasonable, or likely to develop," that will weigh against fair use.

Resources on Fair Use

Using Material Under an Existing License

A Creative Commons license makes it easy for you to know how you can use a work. Images licensed under Creative Commons licenses can be particularly useful if you need a generic rather than specific image. Because the rights holder has already given everyone permission to use the image under the terms of the license, you do not need to evaluate fair use or seek permission in order to use it.

When you use a work licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses, you need to comply with the license requirements (unless your use is otherwise permitted, e.g., by fair use). All Creative Commons licenses require attribution. Using the work without giving attribution means you do not meet the legal conditions of the license. However, the licenses are deliberately flexible about the requirements for that attribution. The Best Practices for Attribution are outlined on the Creative Commons wiki. Our page about Creative Commons licenses has more information on this topic.

Searching for Licensed Works

When works are marked with code generated by the Creative Commons License Chooser, that mark is machine readable. A number of search tools allow users to limit their search by license.

Copyright Infringement vs. Plagiarism

Copyright infringement and plagiarism are related but distinct concepts. Plagiarism is using the work of another without attribution. Copyright infringement is any reproduction, distribution, modification, performance, or display of a copyrighted work without the permission of the rights holder that does not fall under fair use or another user's right.

It is possible to plagiarize even when you have cleared permission for all the copyrighted works. Similarly, it is possible to infringe copyright even when you have given careful attribution. In addition to resolving the copyright issues, you must follow attribution norms within your discipline in order to avoid plagiarizing others' work.

U.S. copyright law does not require citation in a particular form. However, following academic citation norms can help improve your fair use analysis. Check with your advisor for help figuring out what citation style you should use in your thesis or dissertation.

The Graduate School's Thesis and Dissertation Guide says:

Source citations are required in the text whenever you use a direct quotation, paraphrase another author’s words, or include specific information that is not common knowledge (and is not the result of your own research reported in the thesis/dissertation).

For further information on citation, check out the PSU Libraries’ Citation Guide.


This guide is based in part on Copyright for Dissertations, a guide from the University of Michigan Library Copyright Office, which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.