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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.

Copyright Formalities

In the United States today, copyright protection automatically covers all new copyrightable works, including your dissertation. The moment a copyrightable work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression (e.g., written on a piece of paper or on your hard drive), it is subject to copyright.

In the past, authors had to comply with certain formalities in order to obtain copyright protection. These formalities included registering the work with the US Copyright Office and placing a copyright notice on the work. Copyright law no longer requires that authors comply with these formalities merely to obtain copyright protection. However, registering a work and putting a copyright notice on a work still come with legal benefits, so authors often do these things anyway.

Copyright Notice

Under current US law, you do not have to provide a copyright notice on your work to receive copyright protection. However, if you are making your work publicly available, you may want to.

Putting a copyright notice (the copyright symbol (©), the year of publication, and the name of the copyright holder) on a work tells the rest of the world that the work is protected by copyright. If the copyright holder later sues someone for infringing their copyright in the work, they can point to the notice to show that the defendant is not an “innocent infringer," which can lead to higher damages. A copyright notice also lets others know whom to contact if they would like a license to use the work.

Copyright Registration

Under current US law, you do not have to register your work to receive copyright protection. You may want to register it anyway, because copyright registration comes with certain legal benefits. If the work is registered within three months of its publication date or before a particular infringement occurs, the copyright holder can recover statutory damages (monetary awards that need not be connected to actual harm suffered by the copyright holder) and attorney’s fees if they are successful in an infringement suit. Also, registration is required before the author can bring a lawsuit about the use of their work. However, despite these benefits, many works are never registered because registration takes time and money.

Registering a copyright is not difficult. For instructions and forms, visit the US Copyright Office website. If you have any questions regarding copyright registration, the US Copyright Office has a toll-free help line at 1-877-476-0778. You may register a work at any time while it is still in copyright.

Online registration for a single work of which you are the sole author costs $35. In all other cases, the online registration fee is $55. The fee for registering with a paper application is $85.

Registration by ProQuest

The Graduate School requires that doctoral dissertations be submitted to ProQuest. ProQuest will register copyright on behalf of authors, for a fee.

Who Holds Copyright in Penn State Theses and Dissertations

Penn State thesis and dissertation authors are the initial copyright holders for their theses and dissertations. As copyright holders, they have certain rights under copyright law. In the United States today, those rights can be separated and split. The author can give others permission to exercise some or all of those rights. That is called a license. If the author agrees only to give that permission to one entity at a time, the license is exclusive.

An exclusive license that lasts until the end of the copyright term is a transfer of copyright. To be valid, a copyright transfer must be in writing and must be signed by the copyright holder or the copyright holder’s agent. The recipient of a copyright transfer can then license or transfer the copyright.

In the academic context, licenses and transfers of copyright are particularly common in publishing agreements. In many cases, the author transfers all or part of the copyright in her publication to the publisher. Academic authors also use the Creative Commons licenses to increase access to their work, either in advance or as part of a publishing agreement.

Because Penn State permits use of coauthored material in theses and dissertations under certain circumstances, Penn State thesis and dissertation authors sometimes hold copyright in some portions of the thesis or dissertation jointly with coauthors.

Attribution

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.