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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.

In general, if you write text, make diagrams, create software, collect data, etc., then you own the copyright in those things. However, there can be grey areas, for example if you're using a survey tool developed by your supervisor or you're collecting data that is part of a larger set gathered by a research lab over many years. If you are unsure about who owns what talk to your supervisor or the University's copyright officer.

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? The important thing is to talk about it, agree, and put that agreement in writing in some form.

Access to your thesis via 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.

When you deposit your thesis you fill out an Author Declaration form, which includes a section called "Access to my thesis."

  • Choosing the open access means your thesis will be free-to-read for anyone with an internet connection. They can read it, download a copy to their device, and quote or critique your work, as anyone can with any work.
  • See below on choosing how to licence your work. 
  • It's key to understand that copyright protects the expression of ideas, not ideas themselves. In publishing your ideas anywhere (e.g. even in a journal or a book), it is the article or book itself that is protected by copyright, not the ideas expressed or explained in it. 
  • Removing barriers to your work has been shown to improve its impact through more diverse readership and citations
  • You can choose to make your thesis abstract-only for six months, after which it will become free-to-read.
  • Embargoing your thesis is different from choosing the abstract-only option for six months and requires approval.

Licensing your work

Your thesis is just like a book: hopefully people will want to read and reuse it. As copyright owner, you can decide whether you want to retain all rights or licence your work with an open access licence. Your options are:

  • All rights reserved. All published books have a page called the "verso". This is the page that will say something like "All rights reserved (C) Jane Suzuki 2024. No part of this work may be copied without permission." For your thesis, you are automatically the copyright holder, even if you don't write any of this on it. The default copyright rules apply: you retain the standard rights under NZ copyright law as having the exclusive right to copy, share, adapt, translate, perform or otherwise communicate your work. However, as explained above, people can read it and download a personal copy or take out quotes. 
  • Open Access / Creative Commons. Alternatively, you could choose to licence your thesis with a Creative Commons licence, which are a simple, legally-robust international standard by which you can tell other people about how they can access and reuse your work. For more explanation, watch the video below or see CC BY: what does it mean for scholarly articles? 
  • How do I apply my choice of licence, whether it's all rights reserved or Creative Commons? It's as simple as writing the words, like the all rights reserved example above. If you go with Creative Commons, you can use their tool to select a licence and the text/logo that you can include on your own verso page in your thesis.

Creative Commons explained

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


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

If your use of others' copyright material doesn't fit within what's outlined above, you may 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. Check out a video on this.

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.

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. If you want to use material held by galleries, libraries, archives and museums, they may require permission. Note that your use might still be allowed without permission, as outlined in the boxes above this one. However, there may also be non-copyright reasons why you can't copy something, like indigenous property rights.

TIP: if you have an image and you can't remember where you got it from, 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.

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. For work licensed under Creative Commons, check their best practice for attributions.

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:

  • linking to the original;
  • finding 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; or
  • 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

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.

A related issue is that the rules for what you might be able to copy in your thesis can change when publishing with a commercial publisher. Even if something is allowed by the law (e.g. fair dealing for criticism and review to quote a short extract from another article), some publishers may require you to clear permission for everything. In other words, this is their practice as a matter of policy..