Skip to Main Content

Copyright Guide: Doctoral Theses

A practical guide on copyright and licensing issues aimed at staff, students and researchers at the University of Sussex

Copyright issues in your doctoral thesis

University regulation include the requirement to submit two copies of your thesis: one bound copy for the department and one in electronic form that will be openly accessible on Sussex Research Online and the British Library's Electronic Theses Online Service (EThOS).

What are the benefits of putting your thesis online?
  • Personal reward - knowing your research is being read
  • E-theses submission will make a hidden body of knowledge accessible
  • Increased visibility as a researcher
  • Gain new skills for the digital age
  • Global accessibility - representing the scholarship produced at Sussex.

What are the key issues arising from electronic theses?

  • Confidentiality: including sensitive personal information, obtained under a promise of confidentiality, may be allowed for examination purposes but not for open access.
  • Commercially sensitive material:agreements with sponsors or a patent pending, may prohibit research being made openly available for a certain period.
  • Pre-publication: publishers may advise against making a thesis available electronically prior to publication.
  • Third party copyright material: inclusion of material by other authors, such as; long quotes, images, photographs, tables and maps from published or unpublished works. Traditionally accepted in a thesis for examination purposes, but may require permission from the rights holder for e-thesis submission. Making material openly available online is considered a form of publishing.
  • Global accessibility - representing the scholarship produced at Sussex.

Authors have exclusive economic rights to make commercial gain from the exploitation of their work, for example, they have the right to control if and when their work is performed, copied or made available to the public. They also have moral rights to be identified as the author, right of attribution, the right to object to derogatory treatment of a work, right of integrity and the right to object to false attribution.

However, there are also exceptions under the CDPA 1988 which allow the use of copyright works within certain conditions and limits and for certain purposes, without infringing copyright:

  • Using less than a 'substantial' part of a work does not infringe copyright. What constitutes 'substantial' can be difficult to determine and depends on quality as well as quantity.
  • Fair dealing: if a substantial amount of a work is used the question arises as to whether this can be considered 'fair dealing' in terms of the authors exclusive rights.
  • Permitted purposes: fair dealing for non-commercial research and private study; quotation, criticism and review or news reporting.
  • Fair dealing for any type of work, for quotation,  criticism or  review of that work is not an infringement, provided sufficient acknowledgment is made and that the work has previously been made available to the public. In deciding what is fair, the Courts would consider what proportion of the work consists of quotation and what proportion of comment and analysis.

If you have used short extracts of text or an illustration or image from a published work and it is integral to your argument or analysis within your doctoral thesis, then this may be allowed under the fair dealing exception for criticism and review. If this is the case, it may not be necessary to seek permission. However, this form of fair dealing does not apply to works that have not been made available to the public, on the grounds that it would be unfair to the author. In the case of using extracts from unpublished material, you would need to seek copyright permission from the copyright holder to include in your ethesis.

The steps towards tracing a copyright owner are to:

  • Decide whether the work is still in copyright.
  • Consider whether you can use the material under the legal exception of fair dealing for criticism or review or under Creative Commons or other licence.
  • Identify and trace the present copyright owner. For published works, the publisher is usually a good place to start. For older works, where the author has died, copyright may have passed on to their estate - the WATCH (Writers, Authors and their Copyright Holders) website is helpful in identifying contact details.
  • Ask for permission to include the material in your electronic thesis, giving details of how your thesis will be made available on Sussex Research Online and on EThOS.
  • Acknowledge the copyright, give credit as appropriate to the author, the rights owner and the custodian.
  • Keep all correspondence in a safe place in case you need to refer to it at a later date.

Using archival or unpublished material

If,  in the course of your research for your doctoral studies, you are consulting archival material in museums, archives or special collections,  you may find that some of this material is unpublished and additionally the author may be unknown or difficult to trace (Orphan Work).   In terms of copyright compliance, this raises several issues when it comes to the inclusion of  substantial extracts or images in your dotoral thesis. 

  • The uncertainty of copyright ownership.  A significant percentage (estimated at 10-30%) of archival material will be difficult, or sometimes impossible to obtain copyright permissions for use as the author may be unknown or difficult to trace.
  • The duration of copyright in unpublished material.  Literary, dramatic and musical works unpublished by 1 August 1989 and whose author died before 1 January 1969 will be in copyright until 31 December 2039, regardless of how long ago the work was created or when its author died.  The reason for this is that until the 1988 Copyright Act, unpublished works enjoyed perpetual copyright.  There are variations on the duration of copyright for different types of unpublished material.
  • The CDPA 1988's fair dealing exception for criticism, review and quotation, although applicable to the use of published material, is not considered fair dealing for unpublished works.  Therefore, only an insubstantial amount of an unpublished work can be included in an open access thesis without the permission of the copyright owner.

If you are dealing with unpublished material or  orphan works, you may need to assess the risk of including the material if you are unable to obtain permission.  The JISC Strategic Content Alliance (SCA) IPR Toolkit is a very useful resource for checking the exact duration of copyright in unpublished material as well as guidance and support in using orphan works.


The information contained within these pages is intended as a general guide and an interpretation of current copyright issues. It is not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

Copyright Issues in your Doctoral Thesis

Finding free to use images

Further guidance

JISC Orphan Works poster

Getting help

 For help with general queries about copying  from print, audiovisual or electronic publications, please email