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Copyright: Seeking Permissions

Using Copyrighted Material in Your Dissertation, Book, or Article

Getting Permission

Permission is required for the use of two kinds of copyrighted materials: your own previously published work (when copyright is not held by you) and other authors' copyrighted materials that do not come under the principle of fair use.

Authors are not required to obtain permission to use information that is in the public domain. However, appropriate acknowledgment must be made and written permission must be secured if resource materials fall outside the fair use doctrine. ProQuest guidelines regarding fair use policy (for dissertations) are outlined in Kenneth Crews’ Copyright Law and Graduate Research: New Media, New Rights, and Your New Dissertation. It is important to remember that it may take several weeks or months to obtain permission to use copyrighted material.
(p. 4, Thesis Manual, University of Iowa)

Sample Permission Letter for Using Copyrighted Material (from University of Michigan Research Guide)

Not Everything is Fair Use

“Fair use” permits small portions of copyrighted works to be used for limited purposes without the copyright holder’s permission. But a “fair use” analysis is quite complex and the allowable uses are limited.  Visit the tab on Fair Use for more information.

Even Your Own Work...

If portions of your manuscript previously have been published in research journals, conference proceedings or similar publications, you may need to get permission to use your own previously-published work in your dissertation. Try to locate the agreement you signed with the publisher to determine what it says about copyright. In most cases, the agreement probably required you to assign your copyright to the publisher and you will need the publisher’s permission to include the work in your dissertation. In some cases, the agreement may give you a license to use the work in certain ways even though the publisher owns the copyright. The only way you will know is to read the agreement. If you can’t locate your agreement call, email or write to the publisher and request a copy.

[Permissions granted to use and adapt from Copyright Issues Related to the Publication of Dissertations by Lynn Berard and Carnegie Mellon’s Office of Legal Counsel, June 2009]

Obtaining Written Permission

In general, you need to obtain written permission from the copyright owner in the following cases where fair use or another exception is inapplicable. As noted, there may be other permissions required in special cases.

Quoted excerpts from published materials. In general, fair use will allow educational/non-commercial use of a small amount of material that does not constitute the heart of the work and is genuinely needed for purposes of the use. Stanzas of poetry, letters, song lyrics, diary entries, and other items that constitute either the complete work or a large part of it will usually require permission. The author of a letter, rather than the recipient, generally holds copyright to the letter, but permission to publish the letter will also be required from the recipient.

Quoted excerpts from unpublished materials. Items in this category include unpublished letters, speeches, and papers. Where the work has not been previously published, you should obtain the author’s permission to publish any part of it.

Quotations from archival materials. Although the archive may or may not hold copyright, you should obtain permission from the archive as holder of the materials.

Images, photographs, tables, charts, maps, graphs, and similar works. You should plan to obtain permission from not only the copyright owner of the work (i.e., the creator of the work), but also from the owner of the physical object (e.g., a museum, archive, or individual). Where photographs depict private individuals in private settings, you may also need permission from those in the photo.

Interviews. Depending on the circumstances, copyright to an interview may be held not only by the interviewer, but also by the interviewee (for example, such as where the interviewee is tape recorded or recorded verbatim). Therefore, permission should be obtained from both individuals.

Government documents and materials. Although U.S. government works (i.e., those created by a governmental officer/employee as part of his/her official duties) cannot be copyrighted, this does not mean that you can freely use any documents or materials in the government’s possession. The U.S. government may hold copyright to a work where it has been assigned by the copyright holder. 

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