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Thesis Information: Copyright

Copyright and your thesis - a bundle of rights

Think of your thesis as a bundle of material from different sources, where copyright in each element may be owned by different people or organisations. Most of it will be your work, of course, but most theses contain images, diagrams, tables, data and words created by others. You can use these within certain limits, as explained below, but beyond those limits you may need permission. This takes time so don't leave it until the last minute. Don't worry, there's expert advice and support available from:

After reading this guide, you might like to refer to the very detailed NZ Copyright Guidelines for Research Students 2nd ed. 2012.

You own your own work

As a student, you own copyright in your own work. This is made explicit in the University's Intellectual Property Rights of Graduate Research Students Policy. Note that there are some important provisos, such as when your research is externally funded.

It's very important to talk to your supervisor(s) about your work and their input into it, especially if you are building on work they have done themselves. It's a really good idea, as suggested in the IP Rights policy, to develop an agreement in writing with your supervisor. Even when there is no commercial value in your work – which is true in most cases – it is still important to clarify expectations about what you create as part of your research. Think about what each of you might expect to happen after study: who can do what with the data you gather or materials you create? What will you or they publish based on the research? There can be grey areas: the important thing is to talk about it, agree, and put that agreement in writing in some form.

Licensing your work

Your thesis is just like a book: hopefully people will want to read and reuse it. This means you need to think about the licensing you want to apply to it. This covers inclusion of any papers or chapters, published prior to submission for examination. You select your licence during the submission process but it is vital to think about this ahead of time as it wil affect any permissions you need to obtain. Your licensing options are:

  • All rights reserved. You retain the standard rights under NZ copyright law as having sole right to copy, share, adapt, translate, perform or otherwise communicate your work (aside from the fact you grant the University a licence to provide copies via OUR Archive).
  • Open Access / Creative Commons. Creative Commons licences are a simple, legally robust international standard by which you can tell other people about how they can access and reuse your work. Research increasingly shows that using open licensing increases your readership and provides a citation advantage. You might like to read this short blog post by LSE: CC BY: what does it mean for scholarly articles?

Creative Commons Aotearoa NZ. (2011). Creative Commons Licenses explained. <>

Any printed statement in your thesis should align with the licence option you choose in the deposit process, as described on the Submission tab of this guide.

Publishing articles or chapters during or after your thesis

Many students will consider or even be expected to publish articles or chapters while working on or after completing their thesis. This is fine in most cases but you should always check the policies of publishers you're considering or likely to submit to. These policies should make clear whether the publisher accepts thesis-related work. Consult the MIT Library website for a comprehensive list of major publishers' policies. If the publisher you're looking at isn't listed there then search the publisher's website for 'thesis' or 'prior publication' or consult their information for authors.

This is especially important for students completing a thesis by publication.

Note that you will always be able to include your publications in your thesis and have it examined -- the restriction may be on whether your final thesis can be made free-to-access via OUR Archive when you make your thesis deposit.

Access and OUR Archive

The Submission tab of this guide goes into detail about the process for depositing the electronic version of your thesis, including details about permissions you gained for using others' work. Aside from licensing your work (as discussed above), you have the options to determine the level of access people have to your work:

  • Open access = digital fulltext freely available online.
    Your thesis can still be 'all rights reserved' with this option. That would mean that people will have the ability to download it to read privately but won't be able to share it, build upon it, give excerpts to a class, etc.
  • Abstract online and Inter-library loan = digital fulltext is available on Inter-library loan.
    A user of another library can request a copy of your electronic thesis but their ability to copy is limited as above and to anything that would qualify as fair dealing (that is, unless you licensed it openly, but in that case you probably wouldn't choose this Abstract online and Inter-library loan option). The Library does not interloan print copies from our Otago thesis collection.
  • Abstract only online = digital fulltext is not available

Additional files can be deposited with your thesis, e.g. sound, video, image, data, and copyright permission log. You decide on the level of access.

Using the work of others

You will probably use things created by others in your thesis: images, diagrams, tables, maps, data, video, audio, etc. This is sometimes referred to as 'third party' copyright. You can sometimes use others' work without seeking permission but it depends on a few factors, as explained below.

And remember, if you co-authored a work with someone, they own a share of the copyright and need to grant permission too.

Copying where you don't need permission

You don't always need permission to copy someone else's work. Use the tabs above, going from left to right, to see what might apply to material you want to include in your thesis.

Open Access material

You'll find more and more content on the web being made available under open licences that allow reuse. An individual work, such as a journal article, may include a copyright statement that allows reuse, such as this online article (find the word 'copyright' on the page) or printed on its PDF version; sometimes websites include blanket statements that cover all the material on that site, such as Statistics NZ.

TIP: always check a website for a 'terms of use' or 'copyright' page and see what it says. If it says 'all rights reserved' or similar then you need to think about whether your use is fair dealing or to seek permission, as explained below.

Public domain (aka copyright has expired)

Copyright does expire, of course, which renders these questions null and void. However, working out whether copyright has expired is notoriously difficult, even for experts. It's best to get advice on this from the people listed as contacts above.

Fair dealing

Fair dealing (or 'fair use' in some parts of the world) is a key concept in copyright law. It allows any person to use copyrighted material in certain ways where you would otherwise have to seek the permission of the copyright holder. There are important limits and it is your decision as to whether your use would qualify as fair or not.

For research and private study you can make a single, working copy of a legally obtained original, though there would be limits to this (e.g. a chapter or 10% of a book; for rarer or older material you might be able to copy more - ask a librarian).

For the purpose of criticism or review (i.e. what you might do in your thesis), you might be able to copy someone else's work. Short quotations, properly attributed, are acceptable. It's trickier with things like images, which are a whole work in and of themselves, diagrams, tables, etc. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Am I critiquing the work in some way or reviewing it? e.g. putting it in the context of other work in the discipline or comparing it to my own research results in this thesis. This question is critical: if you're just copying to save yourself some work and not commenting on it you should seek permission.
  2. Is the work commercially available for reuse?  Many publishers provide a means to licence use of their content in theses and books.
  3. Is the copying substantial?
  4. Could I just describe the thing in words or provide a link for readers and avoid copying altogether?

More on fair dealing:

Check a website's terms of use

Even websites that say they are all rights reserved sometimes say that certain uses are OK or that copying within certain limits are OK. Check the terms of use. For example, the American Psychological Association clearly explains what you need to seek permission for and what you don't (e.g. it says that up to three figures or tables are OK).

Copying where you need permission

With traditionally published material, the publisher will most likely hold copyright so ask them (not the author). With Open Access material, you don't need to ask because the open access licence gives you permission up front. If the copyright holder is an individual person then contact the person; if the person has died then you need to contact their estate.

TIP: you can 'reverse search' for images using Google image search or Tineye. Basically you can upload an image (rather than entering text) and the search will show you images it thinks are the same or similar. This can be useful in tracking down where images came from and who might own the copyright.

If your use of others' copyright material doesn't fit within what's outlined above, you need to get permission.

TIP: with the larger commercial publishers, you will often find a standard form for requesting permissions. This is sometimes a link on a website's 'contact us' or 'terms / copyright' pages; other times you might find a 'Get  permissions' link on pages for individual articles. These forms usually have boxes and drop down menus to specify how much you want to use and for what purpose.

Otherwise, contact the copyright owner and advise them that you intend to use their work, detail the pages, graphs, diagrams, etc. you want to use and in what ways. Do this in writing so you have a record.

When you receive permission to use a work in your thesis, record the details, such as:

  • who you sought permission from,
  • what permission you sought,
  • which material it relates to,
  • what sort of permission was granted e.g. was it granted for print use but not digital,
  • the relevant dates

One way to record these is to use a Permissions log. Another option is to use reference management software such as Endnote or Zotero.

In the thesis itself, you should not only attribute each source as you normally would but also add a rights statement such as 'Copyright XYZ Publishing, used with permission' or describe the licence that applies (e.g. 'ABC Publishing, Creative Commons Attribution licence.').

When Permission is Not Granted (including not hearing back)

Some copyright owners may not grant you permission to use their work. Some may not respond (or even exist anymore!). If you don't hear back that doesn't mean you can use it. If you don't get permission then consider:

  • sourcing an openly-licensed alternative (see the 'Finding things you can reuse' box below);
  • reworking the material so that it is no longer a direct quotation or duplication, referencing it and indicating that the material has been adapted or modified;
  • reducing the amount of material quoted so that it falls within fair dealing, and reference it.


Permissions Log - one of the additional files you will upload when you deposit the electronic version of your thesis. Such evidence provided to the Library will be retained offline, together with the corresponding thesis. 

If permission to use works of others has either not been sought, or has been refused, those particular items in your thesis (photos, tables, etc) will not be made accessible within Otago University Research (OUR) Archive, or your thesis can be submitted at Abstract only level .  Add a note per item to indicate which have been suppressed, e.g. “This image has been removed for copyright reasons”.

You may have other additional files, e.g. sound, video, image or data, that are part of your research output. Provide a URL or option to download when you deposit them.

Finding things you can reuse

For openly-licensed works you can reuse, use the search engines on the following sites. In most cases, you need to use licensing filters on the advanced search or the results page.

Photographs, images

Europeana, Digital Public Library of America, DigitalNZ (all public aggregators of millions of works)

Flickr, Everystockphoto, Google images (using Search tools/Usage rights filter on the results page), Gratisography, Pixabay, Freepik

Wikimedia Commons (includes graphs, diagrams, ...)

Wellcome images ("...ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and science.")


Soundcloud, Jamendo

Clearing copyright - student experiences

D Wood needed to gain third party copyright clearance to use images in her Design Studies thesis...

Copyright Clearance for Theses from University of Otago Library on Vimeo.

"I really want to highlight the importance of getting your entire thesis into the academic world, rather than copping out of the copyright necessities by selecting a diminished level of access."


This English landscape archaeology student found out belatedly what 'open access' to his thesis meant, in terms of clearing copyright for images...