Copyright for researchers

Copyright for researchers

Using copyright material is likely to be a key part of your research process and final research outputs. You will also need to consider the licensing arrangements for any material, like an article or thesis, that you publish.


You might need to access or make copies of copyright works for your own private study or research. There are ways you can do this legally, within certain limits.

Licensed library resources

The Library pays licence fees for access to online resources such as ebooks and online journal articles. Current university members can access these resources and download and print sections for their own personal use. The amount you can copy is usually restricted by download limits which are automatically applied to the resource. You should respect these limits and not try to bypass them.

Copies of these resources should not be shared with people outside the University, unless the resource has a licence, such as a Creative Commons licence, which permits this kind of sharing.

Research and private study

There is an ‘exception’ in copyright law which allows people to make a copy for non-commercial research or their own personal study without requiring permission from the copyright owner.

If you make a copy, it must be fair to the copyright holder. Although there’s no strict legal definition of what is fair, copying no more than about one chapter from a book or a single article from a journal issue is a good general guideline. The copy must be for your own individual use. You should keep a record of the original author and source as this will help you to reference the material correctly later on.

Accessible copies

UK copyright law allows a disabled person, or another person acting on their behalf, to make an accessible copy from a work. The disabled person should have lawful access to the original work. This includes material they can access through the Library or have bought themselves. The copy must only be used by the disabled person and should not be passed on to anyone else.

If you need copies of material in alternative formats, contact the Library Disability Team:

Text and data mining

There is an exception in copyright law for ‘text and data analysis’. This permits you to copy material for text and data mining (TDM) for non-commercial research so long as you have lawful access to the original work.

If your use of material falls outside this exception, you will need to contact the copyright holder for permission before you use their material.

Using third-party material in your publication

You may wish to reproduce in-copyright third-party material in your research outputs. If you are publishing your work via a commercial publisher, they may have specific requirements for using this kind of material. Otherwise, the following guidance will help you to make use of third-party material without infringing copyright.

Public domain material

The material you want to use may be out of copyright, and hence free to reuse without restriction. This may be the case with older literary or historical material. Use our guidance on copyright duration to help determine whether copyright still applies.

Openly licensed material

If the material you want to use has been published under an open licence, such as a Creative Commons licence, you can reuse the material without requesting permission from the rightsholder.

Be sure to follow the conditions of the licence exactly. This may include requirements such as proper attribution or not producing derivative or commercial works.

Publication under a copyright exception

You may be able to publish third-party material under the provisions of a copyright exception. Of most relevance here is the exception for ‘criticism, review, quotation, and news reporting’ in Section 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988. For your use to be covered, it should:

  • Be for the criticism or review of the work, of another work (comparing two works for example), of a performance of a work, or another purpose where a quotation is necessary.
  • Be from a work which has already been made available to the public, for example by publication in print or online, or via a public broadcast, performance, or exhibition.
  • Reproduce no more than the minimum required to make your point.
  • Be accompanied by a suitable acknowledgement of the original wherever possible.
  • Be ‘fair’ to the copyright holder – see our guidance on fair dealing for further information.

This exception not only covers quotations of text from written works but can include excerpts from other media such as images, film, or music.

In some circumstances it may be arguable that the reproduction of an entire work is ‘fair’ if it is necessary for the purpose for which it is being used, such as critiquing the overall visual composition of a painting. If you do need to reproduce an entire visual work, consider whether you can do this at a lower resolution. This is less likely to conflict with the market for the original and is hence more likely to be considered fair.

If your use does not satisfy the above conditions (if the material is unpublished, for example) you cannot rely on the exception, and you will need to seek permission from the copyright holder.

Getting rightsholder permission

If the material is not in the public domain or does not have an open licence, and if your use is not covered by a copyright exception, you will need to request permission from the rightsholder.

Locating the copyright owner

Details of the copyright owner of a written work are usually given at the start of the work, often on the back of the title page. For other works you may need to check the final credits or acknowledgements, or any accompanying material provided alongside the work.

The copyright owner for images included in published works or webpages is often different to rightsholder for the accompanying text. The copyright details are usually shown beside the image or listed separately elsewhere in the publication.

For books and articles, the copyright owner is often the publisher. Their website will normally advise you how to apply for permission to use their material.

If the publisher is no longer in business:

If you are trying to locate an individual author and cannot find their details via a simple online search, the following suggestions might help.

  • A bibliographic database, such as Scopus, Web of Science or Google Scholar, may reveal more recent publications by the author with up-to-date contact details.
  • The author may have a social media presence on a platform such as LinkedIn or Twitter.
  • If the author did research or other work with a specific department or organisation, they may know the author’s current address and be able to forward correspondence.
  • A publisher of other work by the same author may be able to assist.
  • Libraries or archives that hold collections of the author’s work or private papers, or scholars who specialise in the author’s work may be able to help.
  • Contact an authors’ or artists’ society such as the Society of Authors [UK] or the Design and Artists Copyright Society.
  • You may be able to trace a copyright holder via the WATCH database.

Asking for permission

When you have identified the copyright holder and found their details, contact them to ask for permission.

  • Remember to give them details of the work you want to use and how you are planning to use it.
  • Keep your correspondence clear and polite.
  • Be aware it may take some time for them to respond to you. There may be some back and forth to clarify things or negotiate acceptable terms. Remember to leave enough time for this in your pre-publication schedule.
  • Keep a record of all correspondence (including e-mail correspondence) relating to permissions. You may speak directly to the copyright holder, but make sure that you always have everything you have agreed confirmed afterwards in writing.
  • Once permission to use the material has been granted, you should include an acknowledgement in your work to indicate that the copyright owner has given you their permission to reproduce the material.

The Strategic Content Alliance IPR Toolkit, particularly Section 3.1 Getting Permissions, gives further useful information.

No response or permission given

You may find that the copyright owner does not reply to you or that they refuse permission. It is good to have a back-up plan in case this happens. Here are some things to consider:

  • Can you reduce the amount you reuse or how you use it so that it falls under a copyright exception?
  • Is there alternative material you can use instead?

If the copyright owner does not respond, this does not imply that they implicitly grant you permission. However, you might want to take a risk management approach and consider whether you could still go ahead and use the material.

Works with no identifiable copyright owner

There may be instances where you suspect a work you want to use is protected by copyright, but you either cannot identify the copyright owner or find a way to contact them. Such works are known as ‘orphan works’.

If your use of an orphan work does not fall under a copyright exception, there is an official process for requesting a licence to use the work. There is further information about this on the Intellectual Property Office website. However, this process has its disadvantages, and you may wish to take a risk management approach and consider whether you could still go ahead and use the material without clearing the rights.

Reusing your own previous work

If you have previously published work elsewhere, do not assume that you still retain all the rights to reproduce it. Check any copyright transfer agreement or contract you made with the publisher as you may have assigned them some or all of the reproduction rights. You may need to ask the publisher for permission to reproduce your work elsewhere if you haven't retained the appropriate rights and your use is not covered by an exception or a licence.

Licensing your work

When you publish your work, you will need to consider how you will licence it. This will affect how others are able to share and reuse your work.

The allocation of copyright and other intellectual property rights in your research outputs are outlined in the University’s IP and spin-outs policy.

Man looking at book in LibraryThe University typically waives its rights as an employer to the copyright in research outputs and assigns these to you and any co-authors. However, in return the University claims a perpetual, royalty-free, non-exclusive licence to use, copy, publish and distribute your work for academic, promotional, and administrative purposes. This includes storing and sharing copies in the institutional repository for archival and open access purposes.

Many funders require that research outputs supported by their funding are published under certain licence terms. This usually involves publishing open access under a compliant Creative Commons licence to enable sharing and reuse. The Library’s open research webpages give further information about open access publication and how to comply with funder requirements. There is also a comprehensive guide 'Publishing under the UKRI open access policy' produced by Jisc.

Make sure you consider your intellectual property rights before signing any agreement with a publisher. It may be possible to negotiate changes to a publisher’s standard contract if you want to retain more of your rights.

Thesis submission and publishing

When you write your thesis, you will need to consider copyright for any third-party material that you reproduce. This is particularly important because, as part of the submission process, the University requires you to submit an electronic version of your thesis which will be made publicly available online via our digital asset management system DigiTool.

You will also need to consider copyright and licensing if you are planning to publish all or part of your thesis in a future commercial publication.

The general copyright considerations outlined above will apply. You may also need to consider the following factors.

External funders

If you are externally funded, check the conditions of your grant as there may be restrictions or requirements from your funder about how you publish and licence your work. For example, the funder may own the research you produce, or apply certain conditions to its reuse.

If your funder’s requirements appear to clash with the University's thesis-submission requirements, seek advice from your funding body. The funder may agree to allow re-use of the material subject to an embargo on the e-thesis.

Some funders may insist on commercial secrecy of their funded work. In this case, it is best to discuss this with your supervisor as soon as possible.

Publishing from your thesis

If you are considering publishing all or part of your thesis in another publication, such as a book or a journal article, it is wise to consider the implications of releasing your work as an e-thesis.

Most publishers will not have a problem with your work already being available as an e-thesis. However, if you have a particular journal or publisher in mind, check their policy regarding prior publication to ensure that they will still publish your work. If you think that your chances of publication will be harmed, or if you have not yet identified a suitable publisher, you can request a thesis embargo.

If you think you will be making significant revisions or changes to the text before publication, then this may not be such an issue, but it is worth discussing it with your supervisor and the prospective publisher.

Embargoing your thesis

An embargo means that the University will restrict access to your thesis for a set time period. The embargo will not normally exceed five years. During the embargo, your thesis will not be available for others to read or access. Once the embargo has ended, your thesis will automatically become publicly available.

When is an embargo needed?

Occasionally there are circumstances which mean that immediate open access to a thesis is not appropriate. Access can be restricted where the University accepts that there are good reasons for doing so. A thesis embargo may be appropriate where the thesis contains material that is:

  • Commercially sensitive – an embargo can provide time for a concept to be brought to market or for more formal protection such as a patent, to be applied for.
  • Ethically sensitive – an embargo can provide time for ethical sensitivities to lessen, such as where the thesis includes material relating to an identifiable individual. However, situations of this type should be avoided as far as possible and issues relating to publication of results considered as part of the original ethical approval of the research.
  • Pending commercial publication with a publisher which does not permit pre-publication in a repository. Research students who think they may need to request an embargo are encouraged to discuss this with their supervisors as early as possible.

What does the embargo cover?

You may stipulate a period of time, up to a maximum of five years, during which the thesis, although still available for consultation, cannot be borrowed, sent on inter-library loan or made available through any institutional digital repository of the University of Aberdeen.

You may restrict all access to a thesis through consultation, borrowing, inter-library loan or any institutional digital repository of the University of Aberdeen only if the Librarian is requested in writing to do so by the Academic Standards Committee (Postgraduate). A copy of the request must accompany the thesis.

Further help

If you’d like further help with any copyright-related issues, get in touch with us: