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Copyright and your PhD thesis

Information on copyright as it relates to your thesis. Please also see page on Copyright and your research publications.

I am a UCL research student. Who owns the IP Rights in my PhD thesis?

As the author you normally own the copyright in your thesis, apart from any work by others you may have included (e.g., figures, images, quotes). This is the general position at UCL.

There are some possible exceptions to this principle; for example, if you receive external funding for your PhD, in some cases the terms of IP ownership arising from a project may be different. In such cases, you may be asked to assign your IP to UCL, so that UCL manages contractual arrangements on your behalf. 

Please see the Intellectual Property policy and related guidance for more information.

Do I need permission to include materials created by others in my PhD thesis?

You may wish to include materials from other people's work in your PhD. These may include quoted text, imagies, tables and graphs. You must exercise caution to avoid the risk of copyright infringement. The starting point is that you need permission to reuse someone else's work. By obtaining permission, you remove any risk. Be sure to retain your email correspondence as evidence that you have permission.

Version of thesis submitted for examination

You may be able to include materials without permission in the version of the thesis you submit for examination. In this case, you may be able to rely on the instruction and examination exception, which allows reuse of materials, as long as the amount is not excessive and as long as you acknowledge the source.

Final version of thesis on UCL Discovery

Following your viva, any corrections and submission of the final copy, your thesis will be publicly available on UCL Discovery. The examination exception will not apply in this case. You may still be able to rely on the quotation exception, which allows you to include limited amounts of materials in your thesis as long as the use is 'fair dealing' and the material included has already been made available to the public.
There is no legal definition of "fair dealing" but these pointers may be helpful:

  • Keep each quotation as brief as possible.
  • Avoid anything which might damage the interests of the copyright owner.
  • Ensure you acknowledge authors and sources correctly.

Take extra care when reproducing images. This is less likely to be covered by an exception and more likely to pose copyright issues. It is always safer to seek permission from the copyright owner rather than rely upon an exception.

The size of the audience is a significant factor in copyright risk. It is sometimes necessary to redact (remove) third party material at that stage or to embargo publication on UCL Discovery for copyright reasons.

What should I consider if there is an opportunity to publish my work?

Check that you still have the right to publish, that you have not already assigned the copyright to someone else or granted someone an exclusive licence.

You should look closely at the small print of any contract rather than rushing to sign and be prepared to negotiate specific clauses. Examine your options before agreeing to assign your copyright to a publisher. If you do decide to assign your copyright, you can still assert your "moral right" to be acknowledged as the author. You could consider striking out any clause which asks you to waive your "moral rights". For more information on publishing and your rights, please see Copyright and your research publications.

UCL recommends that when I deposit my thesis in UCL Discovery, I make it available with a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial licence. Can you tell me about Creative Commons licences?

Creative Commons licences (CC licences) offer a convenient way of licensing your work for others to reuse when you choose to make your work available online. The CC licences are free to use and there is a choice of licences, some of which are more restrictive than others. Creative Commons licences require that you are acknowledged as the author of the work while licensing others to reuse it within the terms of the specific CC licence.

CC licences can be used to licence many types of content such as text, images, photographs, sound recordings and films. They are commonly used to license the reuse of research papers when the papers are made available under one of the accepted open access publication routes.

When you make your thesis open access on UCL Discovery, the CC BY-NC licence applies by default unless you choose a different option. This licence means that you allow others to download, share and even adapt content from your thesis, for any purpose other than commercial (i.e. not for financial gain or monetary compensation), as long as they acknowledge you as the author and indicate where changes are made. When you submit your thesis you will have the option to choose a more permissive licence (CC BY) or a more restrictive one that does not allow adaptations nor commercial reuse without your permission (CC BY-NC-ND). 

You can read more about CC licences on the Creative Commons website.

Can I re-use work from my thesis in a journal article or would that be self-plagiarism?

In order to avoid issues of self-plagiarism you must make sure that you have cited the original source correctly (your thesis for example) and acknowledged yourself as author. Where possible you should also provide a link. This applies not just to reproducing your own material, but also to ideas which you have previously published elsewhere. There could be different issues other than self-plagiarism. For example, if you are submitting a paper to a journal you should also check with the editor about the acceptability of including part of your thesis. Conversely, if you plan to include your previously published work in your PhD thesis you should check that this is acceptable for examination purposes with your supervisor. There may also be copyright issues to address if you have assigned copyright in your work to a journal publisher.

Please also see related guidance by the UCL Doctoral School. 

Copyright and your thesis: checklist 

When your thesis is made open access in UCL Discovery, anyone can access it via the internet. This is similar to publishing. If your thesis contains material for which you don't own the copyright ("third party copyright"), it is your responsibility to ensure that you have the right to make it available. Below are the steps you need to take.

Step 1: Identify third party copyright works

Identify content where you are not the copyright owner, including:

  • Your own published works where you have assigned copyright to a publisher
  • Substantial amounts of text from books, journal articles, conference papers, websites, etc.
  • Images, photographs, figures, tables or graphs
  • Maps
  • Databases
  • Computer programs
  • Web pages

This list may not be exhaustive.

Step 2: Decide if you need to seek permission

Permission is not necessary where:

Your use is covered by a copyright exception

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, Section 30 allows extracts to be used without permission as long as the use is "fair dealing" and you stay within the terms of the exception. Anything more than short quotations may not be fair dealing, in which case you will need permission.

Reproducing photographs, images, diagrams and other "artistic works" is less likely to be fair dealing. You should avoid using unique, iconic or high profile artistic works without permission.

A work is out of copyright

In the UK most work is protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. Rather than assuming, make sure that you check that it is really out of copyright. Some older unpublished works remain protected until January 2040. Read this post for more details from the UCL Copyright Blog.

You already have permission

If the third party work is licensed under a Creative Commons licence, or other terms of use (on a website for example) that allow a licensee (you) to make copies available publicly, you do not need permission.

In all other cases, you must seek permission. Otherwise, the copyright holder may ask you to remove your thesis from UCL Discovery or seek financial compensation.

Step 3: Identify the copyright holder

Where you need to seek permission, it is better to start this process at an early stage. This will give you time to contact copyright holders and look for alternative materials if need be. It is better to do this when you are first gathering your research materials which you may wish to include in your thesis. You will have the necessary information to hand.

First identify the copyright holder. You may need to go to the original source. Look for the copyright symbol © followed by the name of the author or publisher. This appears in different places depending on the type of publication:

  • Journal and conference papers - at the bottom of the page or PDF
  • Books - on the reverse of the title page at the front of the book (but there may be separate copyright information next to images)
  • Websites - often at the bottom of the web page or on content-sharing sites such as YouTube or Flickr as part of the information on the specific item.

There is a list of resources to help you with identifying and contacting rights owners in the Copyright resources reading list under the heading: "Seeking Permission and Tracing Ownership".

If you cannot trace the copyright holder, it is important to assess the risk of reproducing the work - they may take legal action for unauthorised use and request financial compensation. You may wish to consider applying for a licence under the Government's Orphan Works scheme as a way of managing your liability.

Step 4: Request permission

If the third party work is in copyright, there is no licence or other form of permission and you are not sure that the "fair dealing" exception applies (see step 2) then you must request permission from the copyright holder. You may use the UCL template for seeking permission.

If the copyright holder is a publisher, send your request to the 'rights and permissions' department. It may save time to telephone them first to check you have the right department or email address. Do not leave this to the end of your writing-up period as publishers can take a long time to reply. If there is no reply, contact them again after 2-4 weeks.

Keep a copy of all request letters and replies.

Step 5: Store and collate permissions information

It is important to store and organise all your documentation relating to permissions requests, such as letters and emails, for future reference.

If a publisher requires a fee for permission and you do not wish to pay it, or if they refuse permission, you must remove that content from the version of your thesis that will be made open access. Replace it with a reference or description and provide a link (URL) to the original work, if possible. You will then need to deposit two versions of your thesis in UCL's Research Publications Service (RPS): a complete version, and the version without the third party material.

Step 6: Acknowledge permission

Where permission has been granted, cite and reference the extract and add a statement next to the content, for example,."Image reproduced with permission of the rights holder, Springer."