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Whether producing a paper or an electronic thesis or dissertation, there are important copyright issues to keep in mind. Your thesis or dissertation will be published by the University of Pittsburgh, ProQuest (formerly UMI/Bell & Howell), or both. Since it is a published work, permission must be obtained from the copyright holder(s) when using copyrighted material.

There are no hard-and-fast rules governing which materials can be used without permission. Different rules and norms govern different forms of media and different reasons for their use. Permission must be obtained when using any of the following: maps, drawings, tables, figures, photographs, sound files, and video clips, among others. If an executable software program is included, even if it is “shareware,” the license agreement must be checked and permission must be obtained from the copyright owner in order to use it. Material posted on Web sites, whether text, graphics, images, or video, is considered published material. Copyright is implied, so permission must be obtained to use it in the published thesis or dissertation. If parts of the thesis or dissertation were previously published, copyright may have been assigned to the publisher. Check the publication agreement to see if permission must be obtained to use all or part of the article in the published thesis or dissertation.

The following explanation of copyright by Eric Halpern, director of the University of Pennsylvania Press, is a good starting point:

Copyright protection exists from the moment a work is created in fixed—or tangible—form, and authors automatically hold the copyright to their material (authors may thereafter transfer their rights to other parties, as they commonly do in publishing contracts). Protection, however, exists only for the particular expression of ideas, not for the ideas themselves, so only verbatim use of copyrighted material need be cleared. Yet authors are free to quote even verbatim small amounts of copyrighted published material under the doctrine of “fair use.”

...Although there is no precise definition of the concept of fair use, there are some informal quantitative rules of thumb that we can apply: prose quotations of more than 500 words in one passage or 2,000 words throughout the manuscript, if from a single copyrighted source, probably ought to be cleared. And it is inadvisable to use more than three or four lines of poetry or song lyrics without permission. If the material quoted—poetry or prose—represents a significant portion of a work, permission must be secured regardless of the total number of words. If the material quoted is the work of an important or popular, and contemporary or recent, dramatist or writer of fiction, it is wise to secure permission even if the number of words quoted falls substantially below 500 in one passage or 2,000 throughout.

Quoting from unpublished archival sources, such as diaries and letters, even if housed in public institutions, presents special problems. ... (T)he right to reproduce even a few words from unpublished material, no matter how old that material, belongs to the writer or the heirs, unless that right has been expressly transferred to the institution holding the material.

Some materials never require copyright permissions. These include: (1) works published in the United States before 1923, which are by legal definition in the public domain; (2) U.S. government works; (3) state judicial opinions; (4) legislative enactments, and other official documents; (5) blank forms; (6) titles; and (7) extemporaneous speeches1.

In order to determine if use of the work of others incorporated in the ETD falls under “fair use,” read thoroughly both ProQuest’s copyright guide, Copyright and Your Dissertation or Thesis: Ownership, Fair Use, and Your Rights and Responsibilities by Dr. Kenneth D. Crews2, and the University of Pittsburgh’s copyright information. Consult the Chicago Manual of Style for explanations of a variety of issues related to copyright. Further questions regarding use of copyrighted materials should be discussed with faculty advisors and/or an attorney familiar with copyright law.

Once it is determined that permission to use copyrighted materials must be obtained, contact the copyright holder by mail or e-mail and request permission. When publishing the thesis or dissertation as an ETD, it is essential to indicate that it will be published electronically by the University of Pittsburgh.

When producing a dissertation, the request for permission must state that ProQuest (formerly UMI/Bell & Howell) may supply copies on demand. Sample letters for dissertations and Master’s theses are available as well as instructions for permission letters.

  1. Lloyd J. Jassin, Esq., “New Rules for Using Public Domain Materials,” PMA Newsletter, March 1999, 8.

  2. Available online at