Skip to Main Content

Copyright for Dissertations

Provides answers to common copyright questions that come up when working on a dissertation, including using others' content and publishing.

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 materials (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 can raise copyright concerns, if you have transferred your copyright to someone else, like your publisher. 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. You also don't need permission 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. 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. For more information on these subjects, please see our Copyright Basics and Obtaining Copyright Permissions guides.

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 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 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 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 University of Michigan 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 dissertations often have these purposes, this subfactor favors fair use.

  • Uses that are commercial 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.

  • 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, imagine you are writing your dissertation about the impacts of advertising directed to children. You include a toy advertisement and analyze how it reached a child audience. The original purpose of the advertisement was to increase demand for the toy, while your purpose is for scholarship and critique, making your use transformative. 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 toy advertisement described above — 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 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 guide to Creative Commons licenses has more information on this topic.

Creative Commons Resources

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

The Rackham Dissertation Handbook (PDF) says sources that must be cited include, but are not limited to:

  • language or wording either taken directly or paraphrased from another source, whether published or not;
  • concepts, interpretations, techniques, methods, test instruments or procedures borrowed or adapted from another work, whether published or not;
  • charts, graphs or figures borrowed or adapted from another source, whether published or not;
  • photographs, films, recordings, digital material or other images from another source; and
  • data, surveys or results of any kind from any other inquiry or investigation.

The Sweetland Center for Writing provides a number of resources on plagiarism and how to avoid it, including Beyond Plagiarism: Best Practices for the Responsible Use of Sources.