Dissertations & Theses
Student authors own the copyright in their dissertations and theses. Unless an advisor materially contributes significant content to a dissertation or thesis, the advisor does not usually own any of the copyright in the work. While advisors are invaluable guides in the process of research and writing, and often contribute significantly to the shape of ideas within a dissertation or thesis, ideas are not protected by copyright; only the form (words, images, music, illustrations, etc.) of the ideas can give rise to copyright ownership.
Degree requirements in a number of schools require students to deposit their dissertation or thesis in the University Digital Conservancy (UDC), a center for long-term access and preservation of scholarly materials produced at the University of Minnesota, hosted by the University of Minnesota Libraries. Posting your dissertation or thesis online does not in any way force you to relinquish your copyrights - every work is automatically protected from the very first time it is saved, and just posting something online does not mean it is available for public use.
There are also some other other serious issues to consider as you get ready to submit your dissertation - submission is usually considered publication, which will be problematic if your work contains sensitive data, potentially patentable inventions, is in its current form a candidate for commercial publication, or contains the work of collaborators who may also hold a copyright interest.
Do I have to give up my copyrights to Proquest?
It's usually condition of graduation that your thesis or dissertation be made publicly available, as part of the scholarly record. This used to be accomplished by deposit of a paper copy with the Libraries, and today, the UDC functions as the online version of record.
In the days of paper-only theses and dissertations, a business called University Microfilms, Inc. (UMI) grew to facilitate sharing of microfilm copies of theses and dissertations. UMI evolved over the years into Proquest, and still is heavily involved in facilitated sharing of theses and dissertations. The University's historical relationship with Proquest/UMI is part of why students are still asked to upload their dissertations to Proquest.
When sharing both via Proquest and via the Libraries' own University Digital Conservancy, you are asked to provide a license to your work - this does -not- give up ownership of your work, it just permits distribution of your work, as required by the Graduate School. Even after you have shared your dissertation, you remain the owner of the copyright.
Do I need to register my copyright?
Registration is not necessary for ownership of a copyright. The main benefits an author might get from registration come in the context of a lawsuit - it is required before an actual lawsuit can be filed, but can take place just before the litigation is begun. However, early registration does convey some additional benefits in litigation, so although optional, it may be wise if you think you might ever sue someone about your work.
When uploading to Proquest, there is an option to have Proquest register the copyright for you. This currently requires payment of a $55 fee. This is simple and convenient, but optional. Alternatively, if you believe registration would be advantageous for you, you can register your work yourself at the Copyright Office website for a $35 fee.
Turning a dissertation into a book
Most academic publishers do not view an online copy of a dissertation as a barrier to taking on a new book project based on a dissertation. In general, academic monographs based on dissertations are heavily developed, revised, and edited before publication, so the publisher does not see the author's own dissertation as competition.
However, some publishers do have qualms about acquiring book projects based on dissertations with online copies. If that is a concern for you, the Graduate School offers options for placing an embargo (or hold) on public distribution of your work.
Reusing your own previously-published articles in your dissertation or thesis
It is common practice in many disciplines to use previously published articles as chapters in theses and dissertations. As with almost all reuses of prior publications by academic authors, this is of course, only ethical if the previous publication is clearly disclosed (usually with a citation or other form of acknowledgment of the original source of the materials.) Advisors can often provide guidance about appropriate use of previously published materials, and disclosures or credit to the original source, as the practices vary across disciplines.
Many students overlook the fact that there may also be copyright issues, separate from the ethical issues of citation, in reuse of previously published materials in a dissertation. When you published an article, you very likely transferred the copyright in that article to your publisher. If you gave away your copyright, then legally you have no more right to reproduce this article and distribute it online than you would have to reproduce and distribute another author's article.
It is not universally true that all publishers require you to give away your copyrights - many allow authors to retain rights and only request a license to publish. Others request that the rights be transferred to them, but will allow individual authors to negotiate to retain rights, or have a policy that allows authors to reuse articles in dissertations.
If you negotiated to retain rights, presumably you know what rights you retained, and they'll already include the right to reuse your work in your own future scholarship - you've made your own life much easier! If you didn't retain specific rights, you may be able to look at your own records of your publication agreement, or on the publication's webpage, to find out whether they generally allow authors to retain rights. Similarly, you can look on a publication's webpage to see if they have a broad policy enabling author reuse in dissertations (fairly common) or in all scholarly reuse (less common, but possible.)
A few publishers require all authors to cede their rights, and don't have any blanket policy on author reuse. In that case, you may need to approach the journal for permission to reuse your article in your dissertation. In a few cases, they may charge a fee for this use - but that's rare if you directly contact editorial staff for permission. (If you click through to an automated online system for generating permissions, that's more likely to charge a fee, but that may not be necessary for dissertation reuse.)
In other rare cases, publishers require all authors to cede their rights, and will not permit authors to reproduce articles in dissertations (or they may prohibit reuse in online dissertations, but since the only official copies at UMN are those online via the UDC, denial of permission for online use is equivalent to a complete denial. Students facing such a situation should contact the Graduate School to discuss their options.
Using content that originated somewhere else in your dissertation or thesis
It's not uncommon for a dissertation or thesis to include some quotes from other published works, or copies of figures from other academic publications. In some disciplines, authors may even include art images or movie or TV screenshots as part of their discussion. Academic ethics requires such uses to be cited or credited, but citation and credit do not address the copyright issues inherent in reproducing someone else's work. Use of third-party works may be permitted by law without permission from the original rightsholder if you think that your reuse falls within the realm of fair use. (Fair use is a specific legal doctrine, not just a general idea of "fairness" - please do read the information on our site about fair use, and specifically about the use of images in academic contexts.)
If you do not think your use falls within fair use, you may still be able to include third party content in your dissertation with permission from the rightsholder. This may cost money. The Libraries can help you with obtaining permission.
You may also want to explore some other common copyright use issues in research.
If you have questions about any of these topics, or would like to discuss any of these issues in greater detail, feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This web site presents information about copyright law. The University Libraries make every effort to assure the accuracy of this information but do not offer it as counsel or legal advice. Consult an attorney for advice concerning your specific situation.