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Copyright for Researchers: Permissions

Online guidance on copyright as it applies to researchers

If you want to use a substantial part of copyright work and none of the fair dealing exceptions apply, you may still be able to use the material legally if you are granted the relevant permission or licence to use the copyright material for your intended use.

If you are writing your thesis, then during its preparation and examination you may be able to use the 'private research and study' and 'illustration for instruction' (includes examination) exceptions. These exceptions are not available for theses once they are made available in ORE, as this use goes beyond private research/study and examination.

So if you are using substantial third party copyright material in your thesis or other research paper or article and the fair dealing exceptions for 'criticism and review' or quotation do not cover your use, then you need to seek permission to include the material.

To cut down on stress later start thinking about permission early on. It can take some time to trace the copyright owners and gain permission.


If you need permission to use material, first check to see if the copyright holder has expressly outlined how their material may be used. They may have licensed certain use so that you do not need to apply individually for permission.

  • If you are using journal articles or books online there will often be a permissions or copyright section which outlines what is permitted, with links to permission forms if your intended use goes beyond the limited use they have specified.
  •  If you are using material such as maps from online services such as Ordnance Survey or Digimap, check the licence terms for permitted usage.  
  • If you are using content from the internet such as images, diagrams or text, check to see if there is explicit copyright or permissions information included. The menus at the bottom or top of webpages often direct you to this type of information. 

However, not all material will be annotated in this way. Where there is no explicit licence or permission stated, you will need to seek permission.

Creative Commons Licences

Increasingly you will see content made available with Creative Commons Licences attached. The Creative Commons Licences provide a simple standardized way for copyright owners to give permission for sharing and reuse of content.

For example:

Attribution - CC BY licence

This is the most generous, and allows others to copy, distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon work, even commercially, as long as users credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. It is recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs - CC BY-NC-ND

This licence is the most restrictive, only allowing others to download works and share them with others as long as they credit the original, but they can't change them in any way or use them commercially.

For example, look at the resources. Scroll to the bottom of the page and you will see the creators have licensed this material under the CC-BY licence.  So, provided you acknowledge the original work, you can copy/share/adapt the material.


Watch this short video to learn more about Creative Commons.  And for further information, explore the wealth of materials If you want to learn more, take some time to explore the rest of the materials available through the Creative Commons suite of webpages.


Creative Commons Kiwi by Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY) license.

If there is no obvious licence or permission granted by the copyright owner you need to seek permission.

The most important thing is to START SEEKING PERMISSION AT THE EARLIEST OPPORTUNITY.  Sometimes it can be difficult to trace the copyright owner, and sometimes the owners take a long time to respond or do not respond at all. You do not want to be tackling these permission issues as you approach your thesis submission deadline, so deal with them as they arise. 

If you are using third party copyright material ask yourself:


You may not be sure at an early research stage if all the material you are working with will be used in your final thesis submission or research article but it is best to seek permission at this point.  If you decide not to use it later, just remove it.  But don't wait until you have completed your thesis or article and then start the permission process.

Think of this as a three stage process.


1. Identify the rights holder / copyright owner

If you are using material from major publishers, e.g. bodies such as Cambridge University Press or Oxford University Press, then it is easy to locate a rights holder contact.  

Typically the publisher will have a rights/permissions web pages with contact details and sometimes links to online permission forms that you can use to request permission. For example, see this CUP information.

Unfortunately, it will not always be this straightforward. You may need to spend time working out which individual or organisation is likely to be the rights holder and then trace their current contact details. 

If an item has an ISBN or ISSN, this will help you identify the author and publisher of the material. You can search by ISBN on joint catalogues such as Library Hub Discover and WorldCat.

Material on the internet may be unsourced and it can be very difficult to identify owners and/or contact details. Think carefully about using this material in your thesis. If you choose to include material of unclear provenance, factor in extra time for the permissions stage.

2. Request permission for your intended use

It is recommended that you request permission in writing; this can be by letter, email or online form. 

It may be that verbal permission is given in some cases, e.g. a  fellow researcher may give permission by telephone or in a networking situation for you to make use of their work. It is good practice for you to follow this up with a written request outlining the agreement, should you need to rely on this at a later date.

You cannot assume that no response is permission to proceed. It is your responsibility to gain permission for third party material you wish to use. Repeat your requests. After continued non-response you will need to decide how to handle the material for which you have no permission; see the No Permission section.

A template message is provided in the following section. You can adapt this for your own purposes.

3.  Keep records of your permission or non response

Keep a note of all your permission seeking activities.  

You will want a note of all items for which permission has been granted and can be used legally in your work. Some rights owners may specify particular forms of acknowledgments and you need to include these if they are a condition of permission. Or they may grant permission but only on certain conditions, e.g. on the condition that your thesis is embargoed for a set period. See the Embargoes section for more detail on this.

Also keep a note of those items for which you do not have permission because you are unable to identify or trace rights holders and for items where permission requests have not been responded to by the rights holder. You will need to decide how to proceed with this third party copyright material for which you do not have permission.

If you keep good records you will know exactly where you are and what decisions you need to make ahead of final submission of your dissertation or research paper.

There is no set format for permission requests. As mentioned previously, some publishers will have online forms you can use for this purpose or set licence forms that need to be completed.

In all case you should be clear about:

  • the material you wish to use - be specific
  • how you intend to use it, e.g. within your thesis

Below is text that can be used by PGR students who are seeking permission to include third party content in their thesis. You can tailor this to your recipient.  

It can also be tailored for other circumstance, such as requests to include material in conference papers, research papers etc.


Dear [ NAME]

I am in the process of writing my [Phd/MPhil - complete as necessary] on [insert your thesis details] at the University of Exeter.

I am writing to ask permission to include [insert full details of the material you wish to use] within an electronic copy of my thesis.

The University of Exeter requires me to submit my final thesis to the institutional repository ORE ( where it will be available in full, free of charge to anyone (on an open access basis).

I believe the material outlined above is integral to my thesis and I would be extremely grateful if you could grant permission as outlined above.

I will fully reference your material and will include any acknowledgement you wish to specify.

If you need any further detail, please let me know.

Sometimes you will not be able to secure permission to include the third party copyright material in your thesis.

  • This may be because you do not know who the rights holder is.  
  • It may be because your permission requests are met with no response. 
  • It may be that the copyright holder refuses permission (or perhaps will grant permission but only on the payment of a fee).

Keep a record of all such scenarios so that you have all the detail to hand when you need to make decisions on what to do.

What can you do?


Consider if you can substitute the relevant third party copyright material with other material which is out of copyright or for which you have permission or licence.  

This will not be possible if it would compromise the integrity of your thesis because the item in question is integral to your work.


You can retain the third party copyright material in your thesis for purposes of examination but then submit two versions of your thesis to ORE, the institutional repository.

Whole Thesis

This is a file containing the complete text of the thesis/dissertation (including third party copyright material). This will not be made available publicly via ORE. It will be permanently embargoed.

Amended Version

This is a file with all third party copyright material removed and replaced with a statement such as: "This image has been removed by the author of this thesis/dissertation for copyright reasons". When removing material from the digital copy try to retain the pagination of the original document. 

This version will be publicly available.

Full guidance on preparing these two separate file submissions is available on the website


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