Theses and dissertations

Copyright law applies to theses and dissertations written by students as part of their studies in the same way as it applies to other copyright works.  However there are exceptions that may apply to a thesis up to the point that it is published in print or electronic form.

There are three aspects of copyright that need to be considered when writing a thesis or a dissertation:

  • Copying for reference purposes;
  • Using third party material in your thesis (or in any subsequent publication based on the thesis);
  • Your own copyright and any other intellectual property rights you might hold in the thesis.

Copying material (pre-publication)

You first have to decide whether or not your research is ‘commercial’ or ‘non-commercial’. Even if your research is sponsored, there may be no intention of producing a commercial product or process as the result of the research, therefore, it is non-commercial. Almost (but not necessarily) all of the research for theses and dissertations carried out at the University can claim to be non-commercial and therefore covered by ‘non-commercial research’ and ‘private study’ exceptions under copyright law.

For the purpose of non-commercial research and private study you can copy for reference purposes under ‘fair dealing’ without having to seek the rights-holder’s permission. This right is limited to generally accepted amounts of up to 5% of a work or alternatively one article from one issue of journal or one chapter of a book, whichever is the greater. If you wish to copy more then you need the permission of the rights-holder.

If your research is considered ‘commercial’ then this ‘fair dealing’ exception does not apply and you normally need to seek the permission of the rights-holder.

‘Fair dealing' also permits you to extract material from source and quote it within your thesis for the purpose of criticism and review. The material must already have been made available to the public before you copy the extract (i.e. published in some form), and it must be sufficiently acknowledged (i.e. referenced). There is no specification as to how much you can use, but guidelines from book publishers have indicated that extracting up to 800 words in sections of up to 300 in each is acceptable, as is taking a single extract of up to 400 words.

As the thesis is a part of an assessed qualification your use of third party materials will also fall under the ‘illustration for instruction’ exception. This allows the copying of material within the ‘fair dealing’ limits to demonstrate and support the points being put forward.  This is distinct from the separate criticism and review exception as no analysis is required for this exception to apply.

For more information, see ‘fair dealing’.

Using images (pre-publication)

If you are using an image from another source, this is very likely to represent the whole or a substantial amount of the image, so care must be exercised not to infringe when copying such material. The ‘Fair Dealing’ exceptions apply here, but care should be taken as including high resolution images might be interpreted as preventing a commercial opportunity for a rights holder to license that content to you and therefore not constitute a fair use. You should only use low resolution images or extracts of images that fully support the arguments you are making.  As always, the source of the image must be properly referenced.

Simply including an image for “decorative” purposes is likely to fail to meet the ‘fair dealing’ threshold.

See the 'images' section on the digital content and copyright page.

Using material from unpublished works

If your research makes use of unpublished works (such as archival material, or the original theses of other students) then you should seek the permission of the rights-holders.

Permission for third party materials

You are required to submit an electronic version of your thesis along with the printed copy. This is to allow the work to be archived in an electronic repository after your award has been made. With your permission your work will be made publicly available for searching and consultation via the Internet. This can make your work more visible amongst the global research community.

It is therefore very important that when you ask a rights-holder for permission to include their material in your thesis, you make it clear that the thesis is likely to appear in such an open repository. Any permission for use that you obtain should specifically include online publication.

Post award

While you are engaged in your research any use of third party material will be covered under the various ‘fair dealing’ exceptions. However, when the Viva Voce has been completed, the copyright exceptions of illustration for instruction and private study fall away leaving the only exception to remain being criticism and review. 

Where third party materials have been quoted, care must be taken to ensure that this use is covered under the remaining exception.  As always, quoted materials must be properly referenced.

Where use does not fall under criticism and review, permission from the rights holder must be obtained.

Copyright and other IPR

Apart from any third party material you quote in the thesis, the copyright in the original material you write normally belongs to you. There may, however, be instances when the research has been supported (e.g. by a funding council or by an industrial sponsor) and the terms of the agreement require that copyright in the thesis be transferred to the sponsor. Similarly, UK research funding councils, and some other funders such as the Wellcome Trust, require that any sponsored thesis be published under Open Access arrangements.

If the thesis deals with the development of a new product or process which might be patentable, you should discuss this with your supervisor and Alta Innovations Ltd (the University company that deals with patents and licensing) as appropriate.

Please note that publication of your thesis (or parts of it in journals, on the web, or in conference proceedings, including in poster sessions) before patents have been applied for can compromise those applications.

As copyright holder you can enter into agreements with journal, book or conference proceedings publishers to reprint your original material in any form you want. However, you cannot reproduce any third-party material (outside of permitted limits) that appeared in your thesis in subsequent publications without the permission of the rights-holders.

You should be very careful if you quoted material for ‘criticism or review’ in the original, and it is always best to seek permission for re-publication. Even if you received permission to include a large amount of text for inclusion in your thesis (say as an appendix),you should not re-quote that in any subsequent publication without seeking permission to do so. You should also make sure that any third party material you use is not covered by an embargo on re-publication, no matter how much or little is used.


More guidance on getting your thesis ready information can be found on our thesis guidance pages.