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Explaining aspects of copyright to be aware of when studying, lecturing or undertaking research. Please note that information on these pages is for guidance only: it does not constitute formal legal advice.

Making theses available on City Research Online

It is City policy that completed theses are generally made publicly available in City Research Online. Because of this, there are some important things to remember when doing your research and writing up your thesis.

  • All material that you have used from other sources must be properly referenced, so that it is clear when you have drawn upon others' work. More detail can be found on the pages in this section of the Guide (see the menu on the left).
  • Other compliance issues, such as data protection, confidentiality, and commercial sensitivity, must be considered in relation to your research being available online.

The two documents below will help with this, which you can print or save elsewhere.

How might copyright and other compliance issues affect my thesis?

A page from a thesis with colourful diagrams


  • You will almost inevitably need to use material in your thesis that may be protected by copyright, in order to illustrate points that you wish to make. This may be from books, journals, websites and archives, and may include text, images, diagrams and photographs. There is guidance on some types of material below.
  • Additionally if you include any articles that you have published in the past then the publisher may now own the copyright, as a result of the contract that you signed. Even though you wrote the article, you will still need to ask permission in this case.

For material published more recently: according to City's and many research funders' policies, it is now generally the case that articles and other research outputs should be published in Open Access unless there is a good reason not to; this means that in many cases the publishers won't own the copyright and the content will be openly licensed for free re-use without permission. This means that both your own and others' work will increasingly be free to re-use (though you should always double-check this before re-using anything).

  • If you have named anyone in your thesis, whether on the 'Acknowledgements' page or as part of your research, you should ensure they are not identifiable, by redacting the names or using pseudonyms. You should also ensure that other incidental details relating to these people might not lead to unintended identification.

City Research Online and Copyright

It is now normal practice to include completed PhD theses on our institutional repository, City Research Online, and they will also become available on the British Library service EThOS. This benefits you and society as it makes your research available to a worldwide audience. (They can be withheld temporarily or permanently if there is a good reason to, subject to approval.)

However, it is important to be aware of copyright considerations from an early stage in your research, as you go about selecting material for inclusion in your thesis, otherwise this may be problematic. It is permissible to use a certain amount of copyrighted material in your thesis for criticism and review (see below), and for illustration. However, it is important that an excessive amount is not used from any one work, as well as material that is not strictly necessary.

Using material from museums and archives

Using material from museums and archives that is still under copyright:

  • You must have written permission of the museum or archive both to include it in your thesis, and to make it publicly available online, whether as part of your thesis on City Research Online, or elsewhere.
  • You must also acknowledge the permission of the museum or archive - they may provide standard text for you to use. See the box entitled 'Asking Permissions' for guidance on how to request permission.

Using images of objects in museums and archives that are out of copyright:

  • According to a legal judgement in November 2023, the museum or archive should not charge a fee for supplying or allowing an image to be reproduced. An image of an out-of-copyright object is not itself subject to copyright law, and can be considered to be in the public domain, and free to re-use. As this is a recent change (at the time of writing), it is not certain how long it will take for institutions to adapt to this (or indeed if they will resist it).
  • However, you should acknowledge the museum or archive - they may provide standard text for you to use. This is so that readers know where to find the object if they wish to look at it.

Am I entitled to use copyrighted material?

Copying material for reference and discussion ('Criticism and review')

  • There is a legal entitlement which allows copyrighted material to be used for the purposes of discussion (what the law calls "criticism and review"). For example, if you are arguing for or against an argument someone else has made and are reproducing a limited amount of their material in doing this, then it is likely that you are within your rights to do so.
  • In these cases you must use no more of the material than is necessary in order to make your point and you must acknowledge the source in full, as always.
  • Using a certain amount of purely illustrative material in your thesis is permissible, although take care not to take too much from any one source, otherwise some of it may need to be redacted from the thesis. If you need to use a lot of such material, try to put it in an appendix, which can easily be omitted in the version placed on City Research Online.

Questions to ask:

  1. Was this material authored (produced/composed/etc.) by someone else, in recent times?
    If so, it is likely to be in copyright.
  2. If I authored it, have I signed a contract which has assigned the copyright to my publisher?
    If so, you may need the publisher's permission to re-use it (and you should check).
  3. Is the material openly licensed (for exampe with a Creative Commons licence)?
    If so you can probably use it without permission, as long as you follow the terms of the licence.
  4. If the material is old, has the copyright expired?
    See our information on duration of copyright, on the What is copyright? page of this guide, to check this. If copyright has expired you may re-use as you wish. Remember that the typography of printed material - the visual layout of the page - has its own copyright which lasts twenty-five years.
  5. Am I using the material for the purposes of "criticism and review" or illustration?
    If so, this is likely to be permissible but keep the amount you use to the minimum necessary for the purpose of including it.
  6. If I am not using the material for the purposes of "criticism and review" or illustration…
    • Is this something I could leave out?
    • Do I have permission from the copyright holders to use it?

If you are still unsure, contact the Copyright Librarian for advice.

Asking for permission from publishers to re-use

Who to contact to seek permission

You will need to contact the rights holder which may be an author, illustrator, photographer, translator, composer, or other creator. For material from books and journals, the copyright holder will usually be the publishers and their website should list a contact address or mailbox, sometimes with information on seeking permission. Look for a section entitled "rights", "copyright clearance" or "permissions".

You will also need to ask permission of any archive where you reproduce material held by them, adjusting the sample text below accordingly.

Sample text for seeking permission

Ask for permission in writing, by letter or e-mail. Here is some sample text which you may use:

  • I am contacting you to seek permission to include the following material within the electronic version of my PhD/MSc/MPhil (insert relevant level) thesis: [Provide full details of the material you intend to include]
  • The thesis will be accessible via City Research Online, the digital archive of research and enterprise output produced by City University London researchers ( City Research Online is non-commercial and openly available to all.
  • If you are not the rights holder for this material I would be grateful if you would advise me who to contact.

Keep a record of any letters or e-mails you receive granting you permission and indicate that permission has been granted at the appropriate place in your thesis, for example: "This [item] has been reproduced with the permission of…". The template linked to at the bottom of this box may be of use in keeping records.

What if I don't get permission?

If you do need to include certain copyrighted material in your thesis but do not receive permission to do so, you may need to omit it from the open access version on City Research Online. Remember that it is not an infringement to include third-party copyright material (within reason) in the version of your thesis which gets passed to your examiners. Doing this will have no bearing on the outcome of your examination.

Bear in mind that if your permission request receives no reply, this does not mean that you are permitted to use the material.

Credit for image on this page

'MEng Thesis' by Adam Greig (CC BY-SA 2.0) Accessed from Flickr 09/07/2015