Is it necessary to obtain copyright permission to use images, figures, charts or graphs from publications in a dissertation or thesis? What about images from the Web?

Our answer:

To determine whether you need to obtain copyright permission to include an image in your dissertation or thesis, follow these steps:

  1. Determine the copyright status of the material. Who created the material, and when was it published (if at all)? Who currently owns the copyright for the material? This information will help you determine whether or not the material has passed into the public domain. If the material is in the public domain, you are free to use it however you wish, without permission. (But remember to cite your sources!)
  2. Check if the material is covered by a Creative Commons (CC) license. CC licenses provide advance permission for reuse subject to minor conditions, so CC-licensed materials can be used in dissertations or theses without permission in the vast majority of cases. Harvard Library maintains an excellent guide to finding CC-licensed materials.
  3. Determine whether use of the material falls under Fair Use - a provision of U.S. Copyright Law that permits use of copyrighted materials without permission under certain circumstances. For instance, if a copyrighted image is used as the subject of sustained criticism or commentary, rather than for aesthetic or illustrative purposes, the use will likely qualify as fair. Use the Fair Use Checklist to evaluate the fairness of your intended use, and keep copies of completed checklists as evidence of your due diligence. Additional best practices for using copyrighted materials under Fair Use are outlined in FAQ 2.2. If you have questions about whether Fair Use applies to a specific use-case, contact Camille Thomas, Scholarly Communications Librarian.
  4. If you determine that your use does not fall under Fair Use, seek permission from the copyright owner. Detailed information on seeking permission, including templates of permission request letters, is available in Columbia University’s guide to Asking for Permission. Seeking permission is especially important if you anticipate publishing portions of your dissertation or thesis in academic journals or books, as many academic publishers require authors to obtain permission for any third-party copyrighted works included in their publications.
  5. If you determine that your use does not fall under Fair Use and you are unable to obtain permission, see FAQ 2.8.