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Copyright Help for Theses and Other Projects

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need permission to use this map/image/poem/etc in my thesis?

You'll need to make that assessment for yourself. All uses of copyrighted works require permission unless they are "fair uses." See the Fair Use section of this guide for more info. 

How do I figure out if the material I want to use is copyrighted or not?

In the case of material that is quite old, the material might be in the public domain and no longer protected by copyright. Because copyright law in the US has changed a lot over the years, it can be complicated to figure out if a work is still protected by copyright. See Peter Hirtle's (Cornell) excellent public domain chart or read more about the public domain at the Columbia copyright website.

Other materials, such as those produced by the federal government or those licensed with Creative Commons licenses, are also available for use without permission.

Sometimes the rights information provided can be confusing or misleading. If you're unsure whether the materials you want to use are copyrighted or not, contact a librarian and we can help walk you through it.

If I ask for permission and they say no or ask for a lot of money, what are my options?

If your use is clearly not fair and you can't get permission to use the work, you'll need to remove the work from your thesis. If you thought your use was probably fair but were asking for permission just to be on the safe side, it's okay to go back and reevaluate your use. Having permission denied has no effect on whether or not a use is fair.

What if I ask for permission and never hear back?

This is a common problem. As above, it's worth spending some time reevaluating the fair use question. If your use is not fair, you cannot use the work unless you have permission. 

What if I take content and modify or adapt it...who owns the copyright then? How do I cite the new content?

That might fall under Fair Use but determining the copyright status of such works can be quite complex. Though we can't give you legal advice, librarians are happy to try to help walk you through these questions.

How do I cite the images and illustrations that I'm using in my thesis?

Help citing images is available here.

I'm confused!  Who can I talk to about this stuff?

Librarians are happy to help! Ask a librarian via email or chat and we'll be glad to help you work through your particular situation.