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Copyright and Permissions

What is copyright?

Copyright is an area of law that provides creators and distributors of creative works with an incentive to share their works by granting them the right to be compensated when others use those works in certain ways. Specific rights are granted to the creators of creative works in the U.S. Copyright Act (Title 17, U.S. Code):

Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. (Section 102)

If you are not a copyright holder for a particular work, as determined by the law, you must ordinarily obtain copyright permission prior to reusing or reproducing that work. However, there are some specific exceptions in the Copyright Act for certain users, and permission is never required for certain other actions, such as reading or borrowing original literary works or photographs from a library collection.

What is fair use?

Fair use is an exemption under U.S. law (17 U.S. Code § 107) that allows for the use of copyrighted material without explicit permission from the copyright holder under certain conditions. Circumstances where use may be considered "fair" include criticism, reporting, scholarship or research. There are four factors that need to be considered when evaluating fair use:

  1. The purpose and character of the use (e.g., is the use of a commercial nature or is it for nonprofit educational purposes?)
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount or substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the work

From Fair Use in Seven Words [Video], by the University of Virginia Library, 2017, YouTube (

What is Creative Commons?


Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that is best known for its public copyright licenses. These licenses allow for an author or creator to indicate how others may use their work.

Creative Commons (CC) licenses are not an alternative to copyright, but instead are a way for an author or creator to grant broad permissions for use of their work. All CC licenses require attribution (or credit) to the creator, but other restrictions (e.g., no commercial use) may apply. Once a Creative Commons license has been applied to a work, it cannot be revoked.

What is the public domain?

The public domain includes all works that are either no longer protected by copyright or never were. Works created by the U.S. federal government are considered in the public domain and can be used freely (with a full citation).

From What is Public Domain? [Video], by the U.S. Copyright Office, 2019, YouTube (

What do I need to know about copyright for my dissertation or thesis?

When it comes to copyright, there are two major issues to consider with respect to your dissertation or thesis:

  1. How do I avoid infringement of someone else's copyright?

If you are reprinting or adapting a table, figure, illustration, a long quotation, or other item from another work, you may need to seek permission to do so. Gaining permission to reprint or adapt copyrighted material is required before the publication of your work. Your dissertation or thesis will not be published in ProQuest Dissertations without this step.

Don't despair! This is not an impossible task. See the next tab for details on how to gain permission to use copyrighted materials!

  1. How do I protect my own copyright?

You've worked hard on your research and the completion of your dissertation or thesis is something to celebrate! Don't forget to take think about protecting your work!

Copyright protection exists from the time your dissertation or thesis is created in "fixed form" (e.g., written on paper or saved on a computer). Registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress is not mandatory, but is required in order to "enforce the exclusive rights of copyright through litigation" (U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1, Copyright Basics). In other words, if someone infringes upon your copyrighted work, you cannot sue without having registered the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Be aware: there is a fee associated with registering copyright.

You might also consider using a Creative Commons license for your work. See above for more information about Creative Commons.