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Copyright: Writing your thesis

Guidance and tips on making copyright law work for you in your University teaching and study.

When writing your thesis you need to be careful when you use text, images or other material produced by someone else in your work. Follow the guidance below to ensure you don't breach copyright law.

Unpublished theses and copyright

An original thesis is considered to be an unpublished work prepared for the purposes of examination. The inclusion of third party material in work you submit for assessment is covered by a statutory copyright exception, as long as your reuse of that material is not excessive and is accompanied by 'sufficient acknowledgement' of the source.

Sufficient acknowledgement means identifying both the work in question (by its title or other description) and the author/creator, unless that work is published anonymously or the identity of the author cannot be established by reasonable means.

However, this exception does not apply when your thesis is made available to the public, subsequently - including via the University's institutional repository, CentAUR (see 'What constitutes a published thesis?' below). If you need to include third party copyright-protected material in your thesis, and you would like people to be able to find and read your thesis online, you will need to follow the advice on this page.

Image: Kim Shahabudin

What constitutes a published thesis?

When the whole or part of a thesis is made available to the public, whether it be print, or electronically on a website or in a repository (an institutional repository such as CentAUR, EThOS or any other national, institutional or subject repository), it is considered to have been published and the copyright situation changes.

While it is very unlikely to be necessary to omit material for copyright reasons from the final, printed version of your thesis, you may require permission from the copyright owner to retain any third party copyright-protected material within the electronic copy made available via CentAUR.

Your responsibility to arrange copyright clearance

All higher degree students registered on or after 1st October 2012 are required on submission to deposit an electronic copy of their thesis with the Doctoral and Researcher College for upload to CentAUR and EThOS. Unless there are specific reasons to restrict access, agreed by your supervisor and School Director of Postgraduate Research Studies, your thesis will be made available to the public via these repositories.

Third party copyright-protected material included within your assessed work may be retained in the published, electronic version of your thesis if your use constitutes ‘fair dealing’ for the purposes of criticism, review or quotation, or otherwise if you have received permission from the copyright owner (e.g. under the terms of a licence). If your use of third party material would not be ‘fair dealing’ for the purposes of criticism, review or quotation under UK copyright law (for example, the inclusion of material not previously made available to the public) and you have not obtained permission from the copyright owner, such material must be redacted, or access to the thesis restricted. Follow the links for further guidance.

Note that copyright owners are not obliged to respond quickly (or indeed at all) to reuse requests, so where necessary, you are strongly advised to seek permission as you go (whilst you are writing the thesis, rather than when you are preparing to submit). If it is not possible to obtain the necessary permissions and the redaction of the third party copyright-protected content would compromise the integrity of the thesis as a whole, you will need to indicate on your Thesis Deposit Form that access must be restricted, meaning people will be unable to read your research online.

Further help

Fair dealing for the purposes of criticism, review or quotation

Reproducing any substantial portion of a copyright-protected work generally requires permission from the copyright owner(s). This can be true even for your own publications: sometimes the copyright will be owned jointly between co-authors, or have been transferred to a publisher.

Section 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 provides a possible exception, stating that "fair dealing with a work for the purposes of criticism or review, or that of an earlier work or of a performance of a work, does not infringe any copyright in the work provided that it is accompanied by sufficient acknowledgement and provided that the work has been made available to the public."

This permits limited reuse of published material for the purposes of facilitating direct, germane critique. For example, it may be permissible to reproduce a whole photograph if it is necessary to refer to specific visual elements in an accompanying commentary - as long as this is 'fair dealing'. More information about fair dealing is provided within this box, in the next tab.

Note that ‘criticism or review’ can extend to commentary on the ideas, impressions or implications of a copyright work, as well as its specific content or style – but the less direct your critique (and the more generally illustrative the use), the harder it will be to demonstrate that the dealing is fair.

With regard to quotations specifically, the extent of any quotation must also be "no more than is required by the specific purpose for which it is used."

UK copyright exceptions permit limited reuse in certain circumstances and many exceptions are subject to a test of ‘fair dealing’ - in other words, whether the reuse is 'fair' in the context. There is no statutory definition of 'fair dealing', so the extent to which a fair dealing copyright exception might apply will always depend on the individual facts in each case.

However, the use cannot be excessive or considered to conflict unduly with the interests of the copyright owner (e.g. by replacing a sale of a work). Reliance on fair dealing exceptions almost always requires accompanying acknowledgement of the creator and source.

In deciding whether your use of copyright-protected material is a fair dealing for the purposes of criticism, review or quotation, you should consider whether an independent ‘fair-minded and honest person’ would agree with your approach.