Copyright Primer


The information on this site and from the Office of Scholarly Communication and Publishing at the University Library System is not legal advice and is provided for informational purposes only. The Office of Scholarly Communication and Publishing is not counsel to any members of the Pitt community.

Part of the thesis and dissertation process is gaining knowledge about copyright and its impact on your academic work. Taking the time to understand copyright is an important step forward in a graduate student's path, and because it is built into the process of creating a thesis or dissertation, this is an excellent opportunity to gain this knowledge that will serve you in your career, whether in academia or outside of it.
Here is what you need to know about copyright and your ETD:
  • You must gain permission for wholesale re-use of any material that is copyrighted by someone else. This includes maps, drawings, tables, figures, photographs, sound files, and video clips, among others. 
  • You do not have to have permission to quote from another published work, as long as you attribute your source properly. 
  • Copyright of your dissertation is owned by you, the author, as soon as you create it (or, in copyright law talk, "fix in a tangible form"). There are some choices for what you do with your copyright after that. 
So how do you determine whether something is copyrighted and who to ask for permission? Start with Determining Copyright for Re-using Materials, then if you need permission, read Obtaining Permission.
And what are your rights and responsibilities as a copyright holder? Read about Author Rights
Determining Copyright for Re-using Materials
Permission must be obtained from the copyright holder for wholesale re-use of materials in your ETD. There are some cases when permission does not need to be obtained. 
For items that are in the public domain or licensed for re-use, you do not have to obtain permission. 
To determine whether an item is in the public domain, read our guide on Public Domain Materials, and use the Digital Copyright Slider tool to help. While you do not need permission to re-use material that is in the Public Domain, it is still a good idea to cite your source. 
Licenses are terms and conditions that copyright holders sometimes apply to their work that allow for re-use in certain conditions. To understand licenses, please read our guide on Creative Commons, Copyleft, and Other Licenses. For your ETD, the license must permit commercial use. (This is because your ETD will be printed, distributed, and sold by ProQuest, which is a commercial company.) These licenses often stipulate that proper credit must be given to the copyright holder. See the license itself for how to do that, or ask us
If the material that you want to re-use is not in the public domain or licensed for commercial re-use, then you must obtain permission.
Obtaining Permission
For scholarly works such as articles or books that are published, most often you will have to ask the publisher for permission to re-use materials. We advise that you ask for permission as soon as you put it into your ETD. Obtaining copyright permission can take weeks (sometimes months) so start early. For complete information on how to request permission, including a video on how to use permissions request forms as well as templates for e-mails and phone calls, please see our Obtaining Copyright Permission page
Still need some help understanding what you need permission for and how to get it? Contact us for help.
Your Rights as an Author
You are the owner of the copyright for your ETD (except for work that you've re-used, see above). What does this mean? As Kenneth Crews writes in his excellent handbook on copyright and dissertations:
"Your dissertation is protectable. Copyright law protects “original” works that are “fixed” in some medium—for example, written on paper, stored on a computer drive, sculpted in clay, or recorded on tape or other media. You wrote your dissertation, using your original words or other expression. You probably have “fixed” it in various ways.
Your dissertation in fact is protected. It would be a rare and unusual dissertation that is not protected. A work that is “original” and “fixed” is protected automatically under copyright law. You do not need to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office or even put a copyright notice on the dissertation. It is copyrighted upon creation. Those procedures and formalities may be a good idea, but they are not required for copyright protection.
You can decide how to publish your work. Students should consult with their advisors and other officials about local university policies related to depositing dissertations with university repositories and possible “embargoes” or postponements on public release of your dissertation. To be clear, when you deposit your work with ProQuest, the company does not ask for a transfer of the copyright. Your rights in your work do not change. As long as you hold the copyright, you are in general able to decide how your dissertation may be made available, reworked into a book, or divided into a few journal articles. As the copyright owner, you get to make those decisions. But if you give away your copyright—as some publication agreements require—you can lose all of those opportunities and privileges. 
You can decide to enforce your rights or share them. As the copyright owner, you have the legal right to enforce claims against infringers. At the same time, you also have the privilege of allowing uses. You can grant permission on request, or you can attach a Creative Commons license to your work that permits broad public use."
Read more discussion of these ideas in Kenneth Crews's "Copyright and Your Dissertation or Thesis: Ownership, Fair Use, and Your Rights and Responsibilities". If you have any questions about your rights and the decisions that you face about your ETDs, please contact us