Copyright and your thesis

Third-party copyrighted material

Before depositing your thesis in ORO, you need to be sure that you have permission for any third-party copyrighted material to be made available in an open access resource. 

If you are a new research student about to embark on your research degree, consider seeking such permission as you go, rather than waiting until your thesis has been finalised. This will save time at the end of your research. Please see the guide to 'Copyright and your thesis'  for further information (log-in required). The following video will also help you to understand why, when and how to seek permission to include third-party copryrighted material in your thesis.

Copyright and your thesis transcript.

Hello I’m Maxine, from the Library’s Research Support team. And I’m Katie, from the Library’s Licensing and Acquisitions team.

In this video we will explain to you a little bit about how, when and why to seek permission for including copyrighted content in your thesis.

All guidance referred to in this video can be found in our online document ‘Copyright and your Thesis’, which we will include a link to at the end of this video.

It is more than likely that during the production of your thesis, you will want to draw upon the work of others (known as third-party copyright works), so you need to know where you stand when you include such material in your thesis.

As a student of The Open University, when you complete your thesis you will be required to submit a copy to ORO, the OU’s open access research repository. A copy will also be made available online through the British Library’s EThOS service.

This is great news for you as a researcher, as it will help you to gain a wider audience for your research and improve your visibility as a scholar. However, having a copy of your thesis published online, as opposed to simply submitting a copy for examination, changes the copyright situation, and you will need to seek permission to include substantial copyrighted content in your thesis.

So, what is copyright? Copyright is a legal right which protects the expression of original ideas, giving the owner control over their work and how it is used.

Copyright applies to all original literary, artistic, musical and dramatic works; so it applies to books, music and lyrics, radio and TV broadcasts and recordings, illustrations, graphs, photographs, maps, tables and figures, and even software and databases, to name just a few.

Copyright is normally owned by the author or originator, but copyright can be assigned (for example to a publisher or employer). Or it can be shared by more than one person, which can make it more of a challenge to determine whose permission you will need. See the ‘Copyright and your Thesis’ guide for some useful tips on tracking down the copyright owner.

You may be aware that there are certain exceptions that allow the use of copyrighted works, such as for the purposes of examination. This is known as ‘fair dealing’ and could apply to the copy of your thesis submitted for examination.

However, we wouldn’t recommend relying on this, as it can be very difficult to judge when an exception applies. This exception also does not apply for the copy of your thesis published online, so you will need to seek permission to include substantial third-party copyright works in your thesis.

Only a substantial part of a copyright work has protection by law. So, what could be considered substantial?

It is not necessarily about quantity. Even small sections of a work can be considered ‘substantial’ if they give away the “essence” of the work. For example, even a single line of poetry could be considered substantial.

Refer to the online guide for further details and if in any doubt, it is always best to get permission or seek our advice!

So, you’ve identified that you are including substantial sections of third party copyrighted works in your thesis – what should you do now?

Well, first you should check whether or not you need permission to use it. In the UK copyright protection for published works can last up to 70 years after the author’s death, after which the work is in the public domain and can be used by anyone. The work might also be free to use already, if available under a Creative Commons license for example.

Refer to the online guide for more details of the different flavours of creative commons licenses available, and the conditions of use attached to them. And remember, even if you are free to use the content, you should still give appropriate accreditation and adhere to any other licence terms, such as including a live licence link.

So, how do I request permission?

We suggest starting early and requesting permission as soon as you identify that you may need to use a copyright work. It can take a long time to find and contact copyright holders, and even longer for them to respond– don’t leave it to the day before submission!

Our online guide includes some handy templates for requesting permission from the copyright holder, which should make it easier.

If permission is denied, or you don’t hear back from the copyright holder, you can still include the material in the copy of your thesis submitted for examination, but you will need to submit a redacted copy for depositing in ORO.

Similarly, if you’re pursuing a PhD by published works or have previously published any part of your thesis, you should refer to the guide for details of what you need to do and contact us if you need further help or advice.

Thanks for watching. If you have any questions at all about copyright, or need any help with the process, please do get in touch at:

Permission to include third-party copyrighted material in your thesis should be sought by contacting the copyright holder. This may be the author of a work, a publisher, an illustrator etc.

You need to seek permission when you wish to include these material types in your thesis:

  • Long quotations and extracts from literary or scholarly texts
  • Illustrations such as images, maps, photographs, tables
  • Short extracts if they form a substantial proportion of a work (such as a poem)
  • Internet material

Written permissions must include the right for you to disseminate the material in your thesis for non-commercial purposes in an open access resource. Further guidance, including templates for requesting copyright permission are available within the guide to 'Copyright and your thesis' (log-in required).

What if I am unable to clear copyright for third-party content contained in my thesis?

If you are unable to clear copyright for third-party content contained in your thesis a redacted version without this content should be deposited in ORO as well as the final version. In the redacted version please provide a link or description for any material that has been removed. Ensure the two versions' file names are clearly distinguishable.

Has any part of your thesis been published?

If any part of your thesis has been published (e.g. as a journal article) then you need to check the copyright agreement you signed with your publisher. Even if you assigned copyright to the publisher, the publisher may still allow you to use the material in your thesis. A template for requesting permission to include your own published material in your thesis can also be found within the guide to 'Copyright and your thesis' (log-in required).

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Library Research Support team