Little symbol, big trouble?

A few of weeks ago, Naomi Korn (IP consultant) gave a fantastic presentation on copyright and the implications for researchers as part of the Sussex Research Hive Seminar series. Excellent stuff has already been written on the topic of copyright in relation to research (see Martin Eve’s post and Litiz’s post), but much bears repeating.

What follows is my interpretation of Naomi’s presentation, based on the notes I took on the day, and knowledge of my institution’s policies and procedures as I understand them. I am not a copyright expert – if you are in any doubt, you should find someone who is.


Innovative use of technologies is racing ahead of copyright legislation, and the lag has an impact we cannot ignore. Often copyright becomes an obstacle to getting research findings ‘out there’. We are now able to publish our own material on the internet, making it globally accessible to others, which raises issues surrounding not just creation, but content and curation too. Up to now, most changes to copyright law are a response to lobbying, which means the power going to those with the money.

What is covered by copyright (in the UK)?

Copyright criteria in the UK – the work must be:

  • original; and
  • involve skill and judgement (facts are not covered, but interpretative judgements are).

UK Copyright law is organised around eight categories of ‘works’. Some works may be composed of many layers – and therefore subject to more than one of the eight categories (for example, a musical could conceivably be covered by categories 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7):

  1. Literary works (text-based works – which includes software, because it is composed of code)
  2. Artistic works (e.g. paintings, drawings, sculptures, maps, architect models)
  3. Films
  4. Sound recordings
  5. Broadcasts (anything made for transmission)
  6. Music
  7. Dramatic works (anything that could be performed – e.g. a play, a concert, dance: capturing choreography / filming ballet)
  8. Typographic works (typesetting layout – e.g. words on a page, website layout)
Exceptions to copyright

You may not need to get the rights-holders’ permissions if you are using the work for:

  • criticism and review (of the work in copyright);
  • non-commercial research and private study – only to certain classes of materials – e.g. does not apply to sound recordings;
  • examination instruction purposes;
  • Section 35 – as an education establishment you can make off-air recordings unless there is a licensing scheme in place;
  • art sales catalogues (but not exhibition catalogues).
Who owns the copyright of a work?
Usually the originator of the work, but not always. Copyright is an exclusive right: meaning that anybody wanting to use a work in any way needs the permission of the rights-holder. Owning the work does not automatically make you the rights-holder (e.g. works of art or an archive of personal papers). Some examples where identifying the rights-holder becomes tricky:
  • when the author has assigned copyright, or granted exclusive rights to the publisher (e.g. to an academic journal). Once you have done this, you no longer hold the right to publish or replicate the work;
  • an employer may hold the rights to their employees’ works if they are created as part of the job; for example the University of Sussex generally owns the rights to material produced by its staff, (but not by students);
  • when the creator has died, and the copyright remains with the creator’s estate;
  • Orphan works: when the creator of the work is unknown, or untraceable. Unpublished (text) works prior to 1989, where the writer died before 1969, are likely to still be in copyright.

Why should doctoral researchers care about copyright?

Start by answering this question: once your doctoral thesis / portfolio is complete, others will be able to consult it…

  1. only by looking at the bound copy at your institution’s library, or via an inter-library loan…
  2. and/or by reading it online or downloading it (or parts of it) from the world wide web?
    For example, but not limited to: as a PDF, e-book or HTML format on your own website; on your institution’s online repository; on EThOS (the British Library’s Electronic Thesis Online Service).

If you answer yes to b., then for the purposes of copyright law, your work is considered published and open to the public, and therefore subject to the same copyright laws as more ‘traditional’ publications. This matters if you have in any way used the work of others in your thesis, and copyright is not limited to text: works such as photographs, film stills, images of artwork, diagrams and schematics are also covered.

Since October 2010, all completed doctoral theses at Sussex are published in our institutional repository – Sussex Research Online (SRO) – and also to EThOS. Other institutions may have differing policies, but at Sussex it’s a pre-requisite of graduating from your doctorate that you provide the university with a PDF copy of your thesis along with your final bound copy.  At Sussex, there are exceptional circumstances in which a PhD thesis can be embargoed (temporarily witheld  from online publishing). You can request an embargo, usually granted for a period of six months, for various reasons. For example, but not limited to:

  • The thesis contains third-party works for which the researcher is still awaiting copyright permissions from the rights-holders;
  • The thesis contains data of a confidential or sensitive nature;
  • The thesis contains research that is being written up for publication.
What do I do if I will use / have used the works of others in my thesis?

Doctoral researchers need to be aware of third-party copyright implications from the outset of their research. These are your options:

  1. Get permission from the copyright-holder to use their work in your thesis, giving full disclosure on how you will use their work, and that your thesis will be published online once complete. If you only have permission to use the originator’s work in your thesis, and the thesis is subsequently published online, you have broken the agreement and breached copyright law.
  2. Use the works without seeking permission, if you can defend such use under ‘fair use‘. BEWARE: fair use is not a right, it is a defence. You need to be sure you are meeting the criteria, as it can be challenged by rights-holders at any time.

EDIT 13-Mar-12: It is vital to seek advice on your particular situation and materials. Universities will have staff who are knowledgeable and experienced with copyright law and its implications. These folk will likely be based in, or allied to the library. If you’re at Sussex, email with your initial query, and take it from there.

What about copyright of my own work?

You must check this out with your institution. In general, if you do something for and on behalf of the organisation that employs you (paid or unpaid), you may find that they own the rights to your work. Check your employment contract. At Sussex for example, if you are a member of staff, the university owns the copyright to the works you create as a result of the role you are employed to fulfil. Doctoral researchers (and other students) at Sussex retain copyright of their works for themselves.

Agreements with publishers vary over what they/you keep in regards to rights – pre-print rights / post-print rights etc. All contracts should be read carefully, and negotiated if you’re not happy with what you’ve been offered. It’s always worth asking if you can get the contract changed – you don’t necessarily have to accept the default contract, and all big publishers have rights departments to deal with this.

When publishing any of your work on the internet you can grant licence to others by using Creative Commons (CC). There are six types of CC licence, but beware: they are not always compatible with each other. Select the licence most suitable, and base your decision on how you would like others to use your work. For example, CC BY (Creative Commons Attribution licence) allows others to share and adapt the work, providing they attribute the original creator. You can grant different licences to different people (e.g. publish restricted for yourself, but grant someone a licence that is less restrictive).

You cannot waive copyright in the UK, but you can assign your rights to someone else, or grant a licence so generous that  anyone can do anything with your work (Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licence is the equivalent of what would be a waiver outside the UK). BEWARE: If you publish globally under an unrestricted licence, it is irrevocable and perpetual.

What happens with joint authorship?

If you thought writing with other academics was a challenge, you will want to avoid joint copyright of the resulting work. If copyright is jointly held, then ALL copyright holders must give permission for use of the work, EVERY TIME it is used – even if it’s used by co-authors. Naomi’s advice on this was clear: have a single author retain the copyright, but grant generous licence to all the other authors. This empowers co-authors to reuse the material without having to seek permission from all the others, and at the same time allows for faster decision-making and contract-signing once on the road to publication.


Web2Rights is a JISC-funded project to produce practical toolkits for Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). The open content tools can be used and re-used by others. Researchers and academics can also repurpose the material, change it, and adapt it. The Open Education Resource (OER) is an IPR support project, also JISC-funded, tasked with creating tools to help people understand copyright, and what they can, and cannot do, with various materials.

The comprehensive resources include: an e-learning module; flow-charts to aid decision-making (to seek permission, to publish, etc); diagnostic tools and templates for requesting rights-clearance from rights-holders. A risk-management calculator uses your responses to advise you of possible copyright risks attached to orphaned works, taking into account variables such as if and how you’ve tried to contact the rights-holder, how you intend to use the content, and the purpose the content was originally created to serve. The ‘Rights Out’ component offers guidance on working with the IP of your own works. The resources are provided under a CC BY Share-Alike licence.

For doctoral researchers at Sussex, the Doctoral School provides further information and resources regarding copyright and submission of electronic theses on the Copyright and your thesis page.