By default, University of York postgraduate researchers hold the copyright to their original work in a PhD thesis. In the case of externally funded PhD studentships, funders are required to allow researchers to retain ownership of copyright (see Policy on Research Degrees 13.8 / Regulation 12.2.1).
Exceptions may apply where other forms of intellectual property (IP) arising from a thesis, such as patentable inventions and software, have been created jointly with members of University staff or where you have a prior agreement to transfer IP to a third party.
Every successful University of York PhD researcher is required to deposit their digital thesis in White Rose E-Theses Online, the University's open access repository where it will be made available to the general public (Policy on Research Degrees 13.3).
Your thesis will most likely incorporate other people's copyrighted work, such as passages of text, music or video material, or images including photographs, figures or illustrations. You may be able to defend your use of other people's material as fair dealing under UK law, for example for the purposes of quotation, criticism, or review.
In order for these exceptions to apply the material must have been made publicly available (i.e. published), you must acknowledge the original author or creator and rights holder of the work (reiterate any copyright statement or licence terms indicated at the source), and your use of the material must be fair and reasonable.
Can you justify the amount of material you have chosen to reproduce for your purpose? Can you justify your selection for its relevance to your argument (in support or oppositional)?
Could your use of the material impact the market value of the original work, or prevent the creator from making use of it in the way they want to? Be mindful that your thesis will become freely available to the public once uploaded to White Rose e-Theses Online.
You can also 'quote' other people's images (photographs, drawings or figures) in your thesis, provided that they are relevant to your discussion or critique (i.e. not just used for decorative purposes), and that you have used no more than is required for your specific purpose.
You should use a lower resolution or cropped version of the image so as not to impact the market value of the original work, and fully acknowledge the rights-holder in your image caption (reiterate any copyright statement or licence terms indicated at the source). See Using images for further guidance on copyright in images and how to acknowledge rights-holders.
Try to plan for this scenario before you submit your thesis. If you cannot defend your use of someone else's copyrighted work as fair dealing, then you should ask the rights-holder for permission to reproduce their material and for it to be made openly accessible through White Rose e-Theses Online. If they grant you permission then you should acknowledge this, for example in your image captions.
If the rights-holder cannot be traced, or is unwilling to grant permission, it may be possible to temporarily embargo your thesis (so it is not made publicly available in White Rose e-Theses Online) or redact the material which is protected by copyright. University of York PhD researchers should refer to the instructions for thesis deposit, and contact PGR Administration with any queries about embargo or redaction.
If you intend to submit your own published work for the award of PhD by Publication, or as an appendix to the main body of your thesis, bear in mind that you may have transferred the copyright to your publisher. Check the terms of your Agreement to Publish, and if necessary, contact your publisher for permission.
Your thesis may have potential for adaptation into a published book or journal article(s). Most publishers do not object to the prior availability of theses in open access repositories and this should not affect your chances of being accepted for publication (see this 2019 survey of publishers from the University of Surrey), however we advise that you check publisher guidelines for aspiring authors before you submit your manuscript.
You may also be required to place an embargo on access to your thesis if it contains personal or commercially sensitive information. Your research funders may also ask you to restrict access to your thesis. PGR Administration can provide further guidance on embargoes in White Rose eTheses Online.
If your accepted manuscript incorporates direct quotes, images/figures or data from your thesis then your publisher may ask you to obtain your institution's permission to reproduce these. This is not necessary for University of York PhD researchers as you retain the copyright in your original work.
Your publisher may also expect you to obtain rights holder clearance to use other people's images/figures, data or other material (even if their inclusion in your thesis could be defended as fair dealing).
Creative Commons licences work alongside existing copyright to let other people know what they can do with your work without having to ask your permission.
Our Creative Commons for Researchers Practical Guide covers the range of Creative Commons legal tools available and the benefits and considerations for both creators and users of licensed works.
Copyright for researchers: protecting your own work and re-using other people’s
This workshop is delivered by the Open Research team to postgraduate research students and staff through the Building Research and Innovation Capacity (BRIC) programme. By the end of this workshop, participants will know:
If you intend to use someone else's survey to collect your own data, be mindful that reproduction of the survey materials may be restricted by the copyright owners, even though the questions may have already been published in a scholarly context or can be found free-to-view online. See this example reported by Science magazine's Retraction Watch in 2017.
An amendment to UK law in 2014 created a new exception which allows researchers to 'mine' (computationally process) large corpora of copyrighted text and/or data for the purposes of non-commercial research, providing they have lawful access to the content.
Certain publishers also offer a licence-based approach which formalises the right to analyse their content, often involving a dedicated API (the University has not purchased any such licences from any publisher).
The subject of TDM rights has recently re-emerged in the scope of debate around intellectual property and AI training and analysis (see: IP Federation: TDM in the UK, a November 2023 letter co-signed by Research Libraries UK).
The University of Cambridge has published a guide for TDM practitioners, librarians and interested researchers, which includes links to national and international projects, tools and case studies.
Social media platforms often allow contributors to retain any copyright in their original material, whilst claiming the right to re-use this content indefinitely (see for example Terms of Service for Twitter; Facebook). To reproduce social media content in a scholarly publication, you probably don't need permission from the platform owners, but you may need the content creator's permission.
Research subjects are unlikely to be able to claim copyright over their own spoken words or data. However, you should be mindful of good practice in research ethics and data protection before deciding whether to reproduce these in your own work. Anyone involved in making a recording or creating a database may have a legitimate claim to the copyright in their contribution.
Services such as ResearchGate or Academia.edu enable researchers to create a profile and upload copies of their own research output for academic collaborators and the general public. Their terms of service (ResearchGate; Academia) state that the profile owner is responsible for ensuring that they have any rights-holder's permission to share this material: check your Agreement to Publish.
In 2018, some of the largest scholarly publishers have threatened these services with legal action for not doing enough to prevent copyright infringement.
Academic and professional publishers represented by the global trade association STM have endorsed a code of Voluntary Principles for Article Sharing on Scholarly Collaboration Networks, agreeing to tolerate sharing within "research collaboration groups" when not all members are subscribers. STM has developed How Can I Share It?, to help researchers decode publisher terms and identify appropriate sharing platforms. Find the rules that apply to your own papers (or other people's) using the Can I Share It look-up tool.
Sharing other people's work
When you download or print an extract from a paywalled publication, you are likely to be asked to accept liability for any infringement of copyright. Activities which potentially infringe copyright include:
Unpaywall and the Open Access Button enable researchers to obtain versions of scholarly publications which are legally free-to-read and copy, by simultaneously searching institutional and subject-based repositories around the world.
By law, an inter-library loan is supplied for private study. If several members of a research team need to read the same publication, it may be more cost-effective to ask your library to purchase a copy rather than borrow it from another institution.
Publishers and web hosts can remotely monitor patterns of downloading, and may ask the University to block an account or IP address if copyright infringement is suspected. University of York staff and students should be aware that sharing your account details with people who are not members of this university puts you in breach of Regulation 11, and will lead to disciplinary action if discovered.
Two guides have recently (2023) been published on copyright and licensing for UKRI-funded authors writing for publication:
The UK Intellectual Property Office has guidelines to help researchers, support staff and publishers understand the law when using copyright material.
You can also contact the Open Research team if you have any further questions not addressed in this guide.