Copyright and your thesis

Copyright basics

Copyright is system of laws that is designed to protect the works of authors or creators from unauthorised copying and transmission. Copyright applies automatically but does not apply to an idea. The form of expression must be recorded or written down.

Who owns copyright

In most cases, copyright will be owned by the author or creator of the work. If you are a student, then you will own the copyright in the works that you create - that is, the copyright in any assignments, research, theses, essays, papers, websites, artistic or musical works that you create, will be owned by you.

The copyright owner has the right to reproduce, control "public" performance and screenings, make adaptations and communicate (place online) the material. Copyright ownership can be transferred, for example by assignment in a contract with a publisher, in a contract of employment, or bequeathed in a will.

Copyright usually lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator of the work, however this varies for different types of works. More information is available on the length of copyright from the Copyright site.

Copyright in your thesis

Your thesis will more than likely contain excerpts from other publications, such as diagrams, illustrations, quotations and maps that are used to support your arguments. You may also want to include audio visual materials such as clips from TV, CD or sound recordings. This is permissible under the research and study exception of the Copyright Act as long as you do not exceed the copying limits under the 'fair dealing' provisions of the Act and as long as you acknowledge all your sources. Your use must be limited to research and study and you cannot use the materials for other purposes such as publication or performance.

Where you are required to make several copies of your thesis for assessment purposes you can rely on the research or study exception to reproduce the excerpts contained in your thesis. These excerpts are often referred to as third-party copyright material and permission from the copyright owner must be sought before any reproduction or communication outside of the research and study exception is conducted.

Publishing your thesis online

Placing a copy of your thesis on the internet is considered publishing your thesis and you will need to seek permission from the copyright owner for the use of any third party materials in the online version of your thesis. If permission is not granted the material may be removed from the online version by Research Portal staff and replaced with the following statement.

e.g. Figure removed due to copyright restrictions.

It is mandatory that your higher degree thesis is submitted to the University's digital repository Southern Cross Research Portal and it is your responsibility to seek permission for the use of any third-party copyright material. Where permission has been denied or has not been sought the material may be removed from the online version.

The OAKLaw Project has published a very useful guide "Copyright Guide for Research Students: What you need to know about copyright before depositing your electronic thesis in an online repository".  OAKLaw Project May 2007. The guide contains sample letters and tips on seeking permission to publish your work.

Hints on obtaining permission from copyright owners

When seeking permission from a copyright owner to use their material remember to:

  • put your request in writing - use our template letter (Word doc)
  • check to see if the publisher has a website with an online permission form
  • state the amount of their work you wish to use
  • state clearly that you are seeking permission to use the work for non-commercial purposes - e.g. publication of your thesis on the internet
  • be aware that the copyright owner has the right to say 'no' and you must comply with this because the work is their property
  • a copyright owner may charge a fee, or ask you to sign a licence agreement
  • it may take months for the permission to be granted, so allow plenty of time.

Negotiate your rights

In the past when an author signed a contract with a publisher, they assigned all their copyright to the publisher in return for publishing services and royalty payments. This occurred with the publication of journal articles even though royalties were usually not paid to authors.

While contract matters are personal decisions, you should be aware that assigning all your copyright to a publisher may prevent you from using your own work in particular ways, for example, some publisher agreements may not allow you to use your own work to create derivative works or upload your research output to an institutional repository.

Publishers' agreements are negotiable and you do not necessarily have to sign over all your copyright. For more information on this topic including tips on negotiating with publishers see SPARC's Author Rights Initiative.

New models of scholarly communication and publication have emerged such as the Open Access movement which aims to increase the open availability of research publications and the Creative Commons movement with its range of licence templates which can be attached to electronic publications.

Further resources