Copyright and your thesis

Photo of a lab researcher

Why do I need to know about copyright?

All works, even unpublished works, are protected by copyright. As a research student you will be using and creating copyright materials. You need to understand the basics of copyright so you can treat the work of others with respect, protect your own work and abide by the requirements of the Copyright Act.

For an overview of copyright, visit the Copyright basics section of the website.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright doesn’t last forever. The general rule for many published works is that copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. In some cases, copyright lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which the work was first published. Under Australian copyright law, copyright has expired in most published works if the author or creator died before 1 January 1955 but remember, that copyright in unpublished works lasts forever.

The rules for the duration of copyright changed on 1 January 2005 but there are complexities. If you have a query, check the Australian Copyright Council’s information sheet Duration of Copyright or consult the Director of Copyright Services.

Researching your thesis

As you carry out the research on your thesis topic you will be using and copying a wide range of copyright materials such as published books, journal articles in both print and electronic format, material on the internet, art works, photos, recorded music, TV programs and movies. All these works are protected by copyright and you need to be aware of the limits on copying to stay on the right side of copyright law.


Copying for research or study

Generally, if the material is still in copyright, you need the copyright owner’s permission to copy their work. However, there are some exceptions in the Copyright Act which allow you to copy without infringement. The fair dealing exceptions will be the most useful to you as a research student, as they allow you to copy material for a range of purposes including:

  • research or study
  • criticism or review
Photo of student looking into microscope

How much can I copy for research or study?

In the case of books, journal articles and notated music you can copy a reasonable portion, which is defined as:

  • one chapter or 10% of the pages from a book
  • a single article from an issue of a periodical, more if they are for the same piece of research or course.

Copying images, diagrams, films, DVDs & CDs for research or study

Fair dealing also applies to other types of works such as diagrams, artworks, films, TV programs and CDs. However, the amount you can copy from these works while preparing your thesis isn’t specified in the Copyright Act.

You need to consider five factors before deciding if your copying constitutes fair dealing. These factors also apply if you want to copy more than a reasonable portion of a literary or dramatic work or notated music. There's more information about copying for research or study in the Copyright basics section.


Copying for criticism or review

There is no limit on the amount of a work that you can reproduce for the purpose of criticism or review, but you must meet the following criteria:

  • make a genuine attempt to critique or review the work by analysing its merit e.g. reviewing a work and comparing it with other works by the author
  • the dealing with the work must be ‘fair’ – the word fair is not defined in the Act and may be based on the circumstances surrounding the use of the material, e.g. if the material was not acquired legitimately, its use might not be judged to be ‘fair’
  • acknowledge the creator and title of work

In practice, the criticism or review exception is likely to give you more protection if you only include short extracts as you review or critique them rather than quoting the complete work.

Writing your thesis

When you write your thesis you will probably want to include excerpts from publications such as quotations, diagrams, illustrations and maps to assist in establishing your arguments. You may also want to include clips from movies and TV programs or short extracts from CDs and sound recordings.

This is permissible under the research or study exception of the Copyright Act as long as you carried out the checks outlined above and acknowledged the sources of the quotations. Remember that the purpose of the copying is limited to research or study and that you cannot use the material for other purposes such as publication or performance. Making three or four copies of your theses for assessment purposes is included under the research or study exemption.

It is now a legal requirement under the moral rights clauses in the Copyright Act to acknowledge the sources you use or quote in your thesis. Failure to do so, could leave you open to action under the Copyright Act and could also lead to allegations of plagiarism. For more information on the University’s plagiarism policy, visit the All your own work website.

At this stage it’s worth thinking ahead and deciding if you are interested in publishing your thesis or including it in Sydney Digital Theses, the University’s online repository of research theses. If you have included quotes and extracts from publications, you will have to obtain permission from the copyright owners before your thesis is published or placed on the internet. You cannot rely on the fair dealing exception to reproduce copyright material in a publication.

Obtaining permission or clearances to use material in publications is time consuming, so it’s worth noting a few points at this stage:

  • keep accurate citations – this will save time later when you need to contact publishers
  • you don’t need permission to use out of copyright works - if you have a choice, use works which are out of copyright
  • look for works where the copyright owner has given a licence for non-commercial use such as items published under a Creative Commons licence
  • check the terms of use for websites, as the owners may give you a licence to re-use material for non-commercial purposes

Protecting your thesis

Australia does not have a system of copyright registration. Your thesis will be protected by copyright from the moment it is placed in a material form, that is, written down or typed into a computer.

As a student of the University of Sydney, you will own the copyright in your thesis and so will have a number of exclusive rights including:

  • publishing your thesis
  • making the thesis available online by placing it on a website
  • performing your thesis in public
  • making adaptations of your thesis
  • broadcasting the thesis

You will also have moral rights in your thesis.

Your thesis will be made available for use by scholars and researchers as The University’s regulations relating to higher degree theses stipulate that (in the majority of cases), once a thesis has been accepted, a copy will be located in the University Library and will be available for use by Library clients.

You also should note that s51(2) of the Copyright Act allows a library or archive to supply a copy of an unpublished theses kept in its collection to a user who convinces an authorised officer of the library or archive that they require the copy for research or study. The library or archive is not required to seek your permission before supplying the copy and the copy supplied can be in electronic format.

As copyright owner, you will have the right to take action if your copyright is infringed.

Electronic lodgement of final theses with the Library

The University Library accepts electronic copies of Higher Degree by Research theses. See the The Higher Degree by Research Administration Centre for further information on the thesis lodgement process.

Publishing your thesis

You have completed your thesis and your degree has been awarded. Now you can decide if you want to publish your thesis. Discuss publication options with your supervisor as they will be aware of publication trends in your discipline.

You will have a range of publishing options including:

  • adding your thesis to Sydney Digital Theses, the online archive of PhD, professional doctorates and Masters (Research) theses from the University of Sydney. Sydney Digital Theses is part of the national Australian Digital Theses Program. For further details, visit the Electronic lodgement of your thesis section of the website
  • publishing your thesis as a book with a commercial publisher
  • turning individual chapters into journal articles for publication in commercial journals
  • self-publishing the thesis on your own website

Obtaining permission to reproduce published material

Whatever option you choose, you will not be able to rely on the fair dealing exception to reproduce quotes and extracts from copyright material in a new publication. If you want to publish your thesis, including uploading a copy to Sydney Digital Theses, you will have to obtain permission from the copyright owners whose works you quote in your thesis.

Hints on obtaining permission from copyright owners

When seeking permission from a copyright owner to use their material remember to:

  • put your request in writing - use our template letter (Word doc)
  • check to see if the publisher has a website with an online permission form
  • state the amount of their work you wish to use
  • state clearly that you are seeking permission to use the work for non-commercial purposes - e.g. publication of your thesis on the internet
  • be aware that the copyright owner has the right to say “no” and you must comply with this because the work is their property
  • a copyright owner may charge a fee, or ask you to sign a licence agreement
  • it may take months for the permission to be granted, so allow plenty of time.

Thesis by publication

Check the copyright status of your papers. In the situation where you have assigned all rights to the journal publisher, or have not retained the right for example to include the article in the Sydney Digital Theses database, you need to obtain the publisher’s permission to include the article on the Sydney Digital Theses. Use our sample permission letter (Word doc)

New publishing & licensing models

In the past when an author signed a contract with a publisher, they assigned all their copyright to the publisher in return for publishing services and royalty payments. This occurred with the publication of journal articles even though royalties were usually not paid to authors.

While contract matters are personal decisions, you should be aware that assigning all your copyright to a publisher may prevent you from using your own work in particular ways, for example, some publisher’s agreements may not allow you to use your own work to creative derivative works or upload your research output to an institutional repository.

Publishers’ agreements are negotiable and you do not necessarily have to sign over all your copyright. For more information on this topic including tips on negotiating with publishers see SPARC’s Author Rights Initiative.

New models of scholarly communication and publication have emerged such as the Open Access movement which aims to increase the open availability of research publications and the Creative Commons movement with its range of licence templates which can be attached to electronic publications.

Need more information?

Contact Coordinator, University Copyright Services on 935 12888 or email


Some useful resources

Australian Copyright Council’s Online Information Centre has infosheets on:

Copyright Guide for Research Students: What you need to know about copyright before depositing your electronic thesis in an online repository. (pdf), OAKLaw Project May 2007.

Creative Commons

Oasis (Open Access Scholarly Information Sourcebook)

SPARC’s Author Rights Initiative

Understanding Open Access in the academic environment: a guide for authors (pdf)