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Copyright at American University

This guide is to provide a basic understanding of copyright laws including important exemptions that apply to the American University community.


Common questions about Copyright and Theses and Dissertations:

Who owns the copyright on a thesis or dissertation?

You, the author, do. The work is automatically copyrighted upon creation. Be aware that it may be necessary to transfer the copyright to a publisher (for a period of time) should one be interested in publishing it. These agreements are referred to as Copyright Transfer Agreements (CTAs). The traditional CTA conveys full or partial copyright to a publisher of subscription-based content. This may prevent broad distribution of your work, such as archiving it in an online institutional repository or even re-using text, tables, or data from your own work without permission from the publisher.  Review any CTA carefully BEFORE signing. The SPARC Author Addendum is a widely used alternative. It’s moderates the standard CTA agreement to allow the author to retain some of the above-mentioned rights.

Though it is not necessary to register your copyright with the Copyright Office, there are advantages to doing it - principally that it will be easier to prove infringement should such a thing happen. A sole author can register a copyright with the Copyright Office for $35  (it can be done online here). You can also opt to do it through Proquest/UMI when you submit your thesis/dissertation for $55.

Even if you don't register it, it's still a good idea to put a copyright notice on any work you put into the public sphere, such as a dissertation. It clearly identifies you as the copyright holder.   Example: ›© 2014 Chris Lewis

If I make my work freely available for open access will that compromise my ownership rights?

Well, yes, partially. It is still your work though you will have willfully chosen to forego any profits you might have made by selling copies. Your research will have a greater chance of being discovered though.

What about including photographs, maps, tables, etc., which are owned by other copyright holders? Do I need to get permission?

Before your thesis or dissertation can be submitted to ProQuest/UMI, you will need to establish that your use of any copyrighted work in your work is legal. Each instance needs to be considered separately. Use this public domain guide to determine if the work to be reproduced is no longer under copyright. Another option is Fair Use. Read the Fair Use guidelines to help you decide if the amount and purpose of your use meet the criteria that define fair use. If you include copyrighted images or tables in your work, explain your rationale in a cover sheet to Proquest. Another option is works that have Creative Commons (CC) licenses. Authors that display a CC logo or mention a CC license on their work have chosen to share more openly.  Go to to learn about the six types of CC licenses.

The Proquest staff are particularly alert to the reproduction of works included as appendices. If an item (e.g. a test) is reproduced in it's entirety in the appendix, you might be contacted for evidence of permission. If Proquest is unsuccessful in eliciting the necessary documentation from the author, they will likely remove or black out that item.

If you intend to use any copyrighted material that exceeds fair use guidelines (see Chapter 5 of the AU ETD Style Guide for more information), its best to seek the copyright holder's permission. If this is necessary, begin the permission-seeking process early, during the writing of your thesis/dissertation. You may use the permission letter available here when writing to copyright owners to request permission to use their work.

 See also the Seeking Permission tab.


Theses/Dissertation guidelines for quotations and reproductions of specific types of works

Fair use is a crucial right for scholars to understand. It is the part of copyright law in the US that permits you to quote copyrighted material without permission or payment, under those circumstances. The law leaves the circumstances vague, deliberately, in order to allow different practices appropriate to different disciplines to emerge as circumstances change. Therefore, it helps to know the consensus of practice in an area, as well as the letter of the law.

In general, a use of copyrighted material is fair if the purpose of the use is transformative (if the use does not merely substitute for a use the market already supplies) and appropriate in amount and kind to the transformational use. Scholars are in a great position to interpret fair use. In general, are you using this work to advance scholarship? Some common scholarly purposes: to demonstrate, to illustrate, to contrast or compare, to explain.

Remember, no one can ever tell you exactly how much is the perfect amount. But that’s a good thing. Any quantitative measures—400 words, 30 seconds, one-tenth, and so on—are not just not part of the law, they can be dangerous in terms of potentially infringing (maybe that’s more than you need!) or dangerous in terms of not meeting your mission (maybe not using enough weakens the scholarship!). Instead, you need to decide how much you need for your purpose, and why. If you know that, you’ll be able to explain that—whether it’s to the professor, to the publisher, or to the librarian. If you are in good faith and have seriously considered both your scholarly purpose and the amount, you and your institutional partners have a vanishingly small probability of ever facing any kind of legal action.

By the way, citing your work is standard scholarly procedure and an important piece of etiquette when using others’ materials. It’s not part of the law, but because it demonstrates your good faith, it can be important in making a decision about your choice, and of course it’s good manners as well as good scholarship.

Here you have some guidance from communities of practice about best practices in certain situations.

Quotations of Prose

Consider using the good logic of communication scholars on quoting, either for analysis/criticism/commentary or for illustration, in your scholarly work. They recommend, among other things, that you align your selections to your scholarly objective, and of course provide appropriate scholarly citation.

This advice is also seen in librarians’ best practices in fair use; they need to make decisions about whether to include thesis and dissertation work that employs fair use in their own libraries.

And it’s seen in the recommendations of visual arts professionals when doing analytic writing, such as art history.

Finally, the professionals who have the responsibility to make OpenCourseWare on all subjects available worldwide have considered when to quote for illustration, analysis, criticism or commentary, and have echoed this same advice.

Read any of these codes to understand how to comfortably make your own decision, appropriate to your scholarly needs.

Quotations of Poetry

Poets have gotten together to provide, for themselves and anyone else who wants to quote their poetry, some best practices in making a fair use decision. They have organized their thinking about this into seven common situations: parody/satire; pastiche/remix; education; criticism/commentary/analysis; epigraphs; poetry online; and literary performance. Pick your use and consult their good logic. For instance, on criticism, etc., their advice parallels other advice on quotations of prose. Use what is needed for the scholarly purpose, limiting yourself to what advances your scholarly purpose. Reading their wording will help you understand better how to make that decision.

Tables, Maps, Figures

Copyrights in most graphic displays of data is “thin” (not all aspects of the display are covered by copyright, only the “creative” and “expressive” aspects), but they do exist!  (Data and simple presentations of data in themselves are not copyrightable.) When you can, therefore, you may want to adapt or combine sources of this kind, giving credit, simply as a courtesy.  Sometimes, however, you may have a good reason to want to use the original.  Once again, as the various fair use codes make clear, an important question will be whether the purpose for which your using the images is the same as the one for which it was originally prepared, or different.   Thus, you would be on safer ground reproducing a medical drawing in an article about changing concepts of disease than in a scientific discussion of the specific condition that it originally was drawn to illustrate. 

Photographs, Illustrations, and Frame Grabs

Because of early assertion of fair use rights in a best practices statement by film scholars, and later elaborations of these best practices into codes, the use of photographs, illustrations and frame grabs is widely accepted in film publishing. It is beginning to be accepted in other scholarly fields, as people use the best practices codes described above.  Consult the best practices codes by communication scholars and visual arts professionals for more support. Their logic applies generally to all scholarly disciplines.

Unpublished Materials  -  including private correspondence, manuscripts, etc.

This material can be treated under the same fair use logic as other material, assuming it cannot be construed as libelous, an invasion of privacy, or giving rise to an actionable offense unrelated to copyright law..  Special consideration should be given to whether the planned scholarly publication might supersede a likely commercial one (that is, will publication of the private material you use make it unviable for anyone to publish this material and offer it for sale?). 

Works of Art

The visual arts code of best practices in fair use makes clear how you can employ copyrighted works of art in your scholarship for analytic purposes, when writing about art. The same logic can be applied to use of works of art, or indeed any material, when writing for a scholarly purpose.

Comics and Political Cartoons

                These materials are used fairly under the same logic as any other copyrighted material.

Newspaper Headlines

Many headlines are not even copyrighted, because most headlines are crisp summaries of fact, and facts are not copyrightable.  In practice, moreover, you seldom will be using a headline for anything resembling its original purpose.

Translating from Foreign-Language works

Your own translations from a foreign language work will be subject to the same logic—is your quotation transformative, that is in this case, for a scholarly purpose such as criticism or commentary? Is it appropriate in amount/kind to that scholarly purpose?  In the case of literary works, you should consider whether your scholarly translation may supersede an English-language market for the original.  That is, would someone choose to use your work rather than buy an existing English-language translation of the work from which you are translating?