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Library Research Guides

Copyright for Dissertations

This guide provides answers to common copyright questions for authors of dissertations at the University of Michigan.

Copyright Questions?

The University of Michigan Library Copyright Office provides help with copyright questions for University of Michigan faculty, staff and students. Please email us with questions or visit our website for more information.

Legal Advice

The information presented here is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice. If you have specific legal questions pertaining to the University of Michigan, please contact the Office of the General Counsel.

If you require legal advice in your personal capacity, the lawyer referral services operated by the Washtenaw County Bar Association and the State Bar of Michigan may be helpful to you.

Using Third-Party Materials in Your Dissertation

If you use material (such as text, images, sound recordings, etc.) created by a third party in your dissertation, you need to consider whether copyright law allows your use of those materials. In some cases, even reusing your own published articles may raise copyright concerns, if you have transferred away your copyright. 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.

You can proceed without copyright permission if you are using something that is not copyrightable or is in the public domain, or if you are using it in a way that does not implicate one of the rights of copyright holders or is permitted by a user’s right, such as fair use. Information on these topics that is specific to dissertations can be found below. For more information on all of these topics, please see our Copyright Basics guide.

If none of the circumstances above 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. Information on these topics that is specific to dissertations can be found below. For more information, please see our guide to Obtaining Copyright Permissions.

Regardless of how you resolve the copyright issues, it is also vital to follow attribution norms within your discipline. For more information about the distinction between plaigiarism and copyright and infringement, see the Plagiarism page of this guide.

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 are 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 images of the materials, 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 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 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 U-M 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"

  • Having one of the favored purposes from the beginning of the fair use statute (17 U.S.C. § 107) will weigh in favor of fair use. Since uses in dissertations serve the purposes of scholarship and research, this favors fair use. It also favors fair use if the work is used for the purpose of criticism or comment.

  • Having a nonprofit educational purpose will weigh in favor of fair use. Since uses in dissertations are for a nonprofit educational purpose, this favors fair use.

  • Having a commercial nature will weigh against fair use. Most uses in dissertations are not for commercial purposes, but that may change if you publish your dissertation with ProQuest or another commercial entity.

  • Having a transformative purpose will weigh in favor of fair use. One way of thinking about this is that a use is transformative when the work is used for a purpose different from the one for which it was prepared. For instance, suppose you are writing about advertisements aimed at children. You include a toy advertisement and analyze how it reached a child audience. That use of the advertisement would be transformative, because its original purpose was to increase demand for the toy. 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 is creative, that will weigh against fair use. The outcome of this subfactor varies depending on the work used.

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

  • If the work 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 work will weigh against fair use. The outcome of this subfactor varies depending on the use.

  • Using the most important part of the work (the "heart") will weigh against fair use. 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 work is used. For instance, the third factor would be neutralized in the use of the toy advertisement described above.

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

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

  • Decreasing demand for the original by criticizing it (as with a negative film review) has 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

Images licensed under Creative Commons licenses can be useful, particularly 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. A Creative Commons license makes it easy for you to know how you can use an image.

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. 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 guide to Creative Commons licenses has more information on this topic.  

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 dissertation advisor for help figuring out what citation style you should use in your dissertation.

Learning from Others in Your Field

Your dissertation committee and other mentors will have insight into the publishing traditions in your field. They are a good resource when you have questions about selecting and assessing the third-party content you use in your dissertation.