Copyright & Your Thesis

This guide includes basic information related to copyright and your thesis.

The content in this guide has been adapted (with permission) from the Faculty of Graduate Studies at the University of British Columbia.

Copyright ownership

Electronic theses are subject to the same copyright protection as paper documents. Students hold copyright to their theses regardless of the method of submission. For more information, see What are Queen's University's policies regarding ownership of Intellectual Property? in the Schools of Graduate Studies Intellectual Property Guidelines.

Publishing your thesis elsewhere

You own the copyright to your thesis as a whole and are free to publish your thesis if you wish. If your thesis includes copyrighted works like figures, tables, etc. the publisher may request that you get permission to publish.

You should be aware that many former students in North America are contacted by publishing companies which search the Internet for theses. The companies then contact writers expressing specific interest in his or her thesis, and offer to publish it. You are free to do this if you wish, but you should research the company first to ensure that it is a reputable academic publisher. There are usually discussions between former students online which can give you an insight into the value of publishing with a particular company.

Use of copyrighted material

According to Library and Archives Canada, “students should ensure that the use of copyrighted materials from other sources in their theses meet the requirements of the Copyright Act. Some written permission may be required” (Thesis Canada).

When you submit the final copy of your thesis, you must sign the Queen’s Thesis Licence Agreement confirming that if you have copyrighted material in your thesis, it either complies with the "fair dealing" provisions of the Copyright Act, or you have obtained permission to use it.

Please retain the original permission forms or letters for your records in case of a challenge.

So, what are those “requirements” that you may have to worry about for your thesis?

Copyright is an area of intellectual property law that protects forms of creative expression. It gives creators and owners of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works the exclusive right to “reproduce the work … in any material form whatever” (Copyright Act, s. 3). Creators and owners also get the right to distribute, translate, and adapt their work and to authorize any of the rights listed previously.

Copyright protection applies regardless of whether the work in question is published (such as a book or an annual report) or not (such as an internal company memo), and whether someone has made it available to the public (such as on a website) or not. This protection expires 70 years after the death of the originator, regardless of who holds copyright at that time.

This means that, if your thesis includes someone else’s work (e.g. figures, graphs, photos, images, art work etc.), you will have to abide by the requirements of the Copyright Act in order to use these works.

When is permission not required?

Copyright does not cover everything. The copyright act lists a number of limitations and exceptions to copyright that may apply to the works you are using in your thesis or project.  

The Copyright Compliance and Administration Policy outlines a number of situations where it is lawful to copy copyrighted works without permission or payment.

They are:

  • Material in which Copyright does not Subsist – Copyright does not protect facts and ideas.
  • Material in the Public Domain - Works in which the term of copyright has expired can be copied without permission or payment.  This means the works of creators who have been dead for more than 70 years, no matter where they resided or published their work.
  • Insubstantial Portions – Copying an insubstantial amount of a work is not a violation of the Copyright Act and does not trigger the requirement of permission or payment.  What will constitute a substantial part of a work is assessed from a quantitative and qualitative point of view. Regardless of the quantity of the work copied, if that part is distinctive, valuable or an essential part of the work, the copying will infringe the owner’s copyright. Examples of insubstantial use include selected sentences, paragraphs, verses or choruses from an article, book, poem or song .
  • Works with Implicit or Explicit Consent to Copy – Material specifically presented for public use – including Open Access publications, works placed in Institutional Repositories and works covered by Creative Commons Licenses – may typically be copied with minimal restrictions.  When copying material posted on the Internet, a user should check what use rights the copyright owner permits.

The fair dealing exception

Exceptions are situations where copyrighted works can be reproduced without getting permission or providing compensation to a copyright holder. The most relevant exception for writing your thesis is called Fair Dealing (s. 29), which would allow you to copy works for use in your thesis as long as the copying is fair and is for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody, satire, criticism, review or news reporting. For the last three categories, you must mention the source of the image and the name of the author, performer, maker or broadcaster.

Note: It is good academic practice to cite sources, but such citing does not remove the obligation to obtain formal permission to use copyrighted material that is not covered under "fair dealing".

While copyright law in Canada does not include specific criteria for determining fairness, the CCH v. Law Society of Upper Canada Supreme Court decision set out a number of criteria that represent the most authoritative test available in Canada. 

These criteria are:

  • The Purpose of the Dealing
  • The Character of the Dealing
  • The Amount of the Dealing
  • Alternatives to the Dealing
  • The Nature of the Work
  • The Effect of the Dealing on the Work

To learn more about fair dealing and to do a fair dealing evaluation, try our fair dealing evaluator (BETA). Using this tool, you can learn how to apply these six criteria to determine “fairness” when dealing with copyrighted materials.  You can also generate a time-stamped PDF for your records.

What if fair dealing does not apply in my situation?

Permission is required when the material you are using in your thesis:

  • constitutes a substantial portion of a copyrighted work, and;
  • would not fall within fair dealing.

Permission is always necessary if you are including full articles that have been published elsewhere (i.e. a manuscript style thesis). Please use the Permission of Co-Authors from to get permission and signatures from your co-authors and publishers. 

Getting permission

If you are not certain that your use of copyrighted material is covered under fair dealing, Ask Us. We can help you do a fair dealing analysis and/or help obtain written permission from copyright holders in order to use their work in your thesis. In most cases, this is willingly given; however, obtaining letters or completed forms may take a long time. Send out your requests for permission as early as possible.

Permission from co-authors is always necessary if you are including full articles that have been published elsewhere (i.e. a manuscript style thesis). Please use the Permission of Co-Authors from to get permission and signatures from your co-authors. In most cases, publishers will allow for journal articles and book chapters to be included in manuscript style theses without additional permissions. Check your publication agreements, the author rights section of the publisher site or the SHERPA RoMEO website for more information about what your publisher allows.

Note: Your thesis must be as complete as possible. Removal of material is only acceptable if you are not able to obtain permission after you have made reasonable attempts to do so, or if a fee will be charged for use of the material.

Best protection against accusations of copyright violation

For your best protection against accusations of copyright violation, you should request either:

For manuscript style theses, use the Permission of Co-Authors form to get permission and signatures from your co-authors and publishers. 

Permission from a website

Many journal websites include statements of permission for author's material to be used in a thesis. In such cases, you should make a copy of the agreement or print out the web page and keep the printout for your records.

Keeping proof of permission

You should keep copies of all letters and forms granting you permission to use copyrighted material. Please do not include permissions in your thesis.

How to Obtain Permission

From Journals

Check the journal's website, if there is one. It may provide one or more of the following:

  • Advance permission for specific uses.
  • Advance permission to journal authors who have signed over copyright
  • Information on how to request permission
  • Information on uses that are specifically prohibited

SHERPA and Eprints both maintain online databases where you can look up journals and find their policies on use of your published papers in a thesis.

If permission to use copyrighted material in a thesis is given on a website, print out the web page that states this and keep it with your records.

Contact the Copyright Holder

Include the following information in your request.

Introduce yourself clearly

Tell the copyright holder that you are a graduate student preparing a thesis or dissertation for submission as part of the requirements for your degree at Queen's.

Identify the work you are seeking permission to use

Give standard reference information for the work, including figure/table number, if any, and page numbers. You can briefly describe the context in which you propose to use the work in your thesis.

Tell the copyright holder:
  • that your thesis will be available in the Queen's Library's electronic collection and will be available online to the public, and
  • that you will be granting non-exclusive licences listed on Queen's Thesis Deposit License page. Send the copyright holder copies of these licence agreements.
Ask for specific action
  • Request a reply by a given date.
  • Offer to send the copyright holder a copy of your completed work.
  • Keep copies of request letters and all correspondence.
  • Keep emails.

If you are requesting permission, the process can take some time, so we recommend starting early.  If you do plan on publishing your work in more than one place (eg. in a journal and in QSpace), permission will likely be required for all works that you use.

The following tips and tools can help you get permission:

  • Rightslink is a tool that easily allows you to request permission for re-publication. In cases where they cannot give permission, they also often list the contact information for the rightsholder.
  • Many publisher websites will include information about how to request permission (e.g., Oxford Journals).  You can also look up individual publisher policies on the SHERPA RoMEO website.
  • Proquest and Kenneth Crews have put together a guide that includes a sample permissions letter that you can use and modify for requesting permission. 

If permission is denied and you do not have a strong argument for fair dealing, we recommend removing the work and replacing it with a description, a full citation, the location of the source, and an explanation that the source has been removed due to copyright restrictions.

Citing sources

You must include full citations for any copyrighted material you have in your thesis regardless of source, including photos, pictures, charts, graphs and tables.

Each citation must include the copyright symbol, name of the copyright holder (who may or may not be the author), and, if applicable, a statement that the use of the material or adaptation (in the case of adapted graphics) is by permission of the copyright holder.


Journal of XYZ, 2009, by permission.
Journal of XYZ, 2009, adapted by permission. (For adapted graphics.)
Sometimes copyright holders will ask you to use a specific wording in your citation. If so, it's important to follow their instructions exactly, word for word.

Unable to get permission?

When your use of copyrighted material is not covered under "fair dealing" and you are unable to obtain permission or there is a charge for obtaining permission that you are unwilling to pay, you can remove the copyrighted material and leave a blank space.

Note: Your thesis must be as complete as possible. Removal of material is only acceptable if you are denied permission, if a fee will be charged for use of the material, or if you receive no response from the copyright holder after making a reasonable effort at contact.

This space must contain the following:

  • A statement that the material has been removed because of copyright restrictions
  • A description of the material and the information it contained
  • A full citation of the original source of the material

Example: Figure 3 has been removed due to copyright restrictions. It was a diagram of the apparatus used in performing the experiment, showing the changes made by the investigating team. Original source: Wu, G. and Thompson, J.R. (2008) Effect of Ketone Bodies on Dairy Cattle. Biochem J. 255:139-144.

The brief description of the figure removed is important as it gives the reader a chance to follow the thesis argument without needing to look up the actual figures. If possible, including a link to an online source is very useful.

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