Graduate Thesis Copyright FAQ

[Updated: 11 Mar 2024]


What if my thesis is found to have infringed someone's copyright?

  • Despite best efforts to comply with copyright law, there will be times when the use of some third-party material, thought to be within reasonable limits, is considered a violation of copyright. If you violate the rights of a copyright holder, then they are entitled to remedies for that violation. Civil remedies include injunctions (e.g., removing the content) and damages (monetary compensation). Statutory damages for non-commercial infringement are between $100 and $5,000. Criminal sanctions may be applied in more serious cases.

What is considered to be a substantial or insubstantial part of a work?

  • Since "substantial" and "insubstantial" are not defined in the Copyright Act, the quantity and importance of what is being copied must be evaluated. The relationship between the excerpt in question and the entire work from which it is taken should be considered. For example, a few sentences from a very long piece (e.g., an 80,000 word novel) would likely be considered insubstantial but a single line from a short poem might be essential to the work and be considered substantial. See the Substantiality section of the Copyright Office website for more information.

If I want to make changes to an image and use it in my thesis, and I do not reproduce the original image, is that an infringement of copyright?

  • The act of modifying or adapting an image (or graph, diagram, figure, etc.), or taking only a portion of a work, does not nullify the copyright owner's rights. If the work you are using is not exempt from copyright and fair dealing does not apply, then seek permission to use the content.

Public Domain

What is the public domain?

  • Works that are in the public domain are not protected by copyright and can be used without restriction. The public domain should not be confused with works that are publicly available. Many publicly available works are protected by copyright.
  • Some works were once protected by copyright, but the term of copyright has expired. These works are now in the public domain. In Canada, the general term of copyright is life of the author plus an additional 70 years. In cases of joint-authorship, copyright in a work subsists for 70 years following the death of the last surviving author. These terms were increased from life plus 50 years effective 30 December 2022, without retroactive effect. There are some exceptions to the general term of copyright; use the "Canadian Copyright Term and Public Domain Flowchart" to help you assess whether the work you want to use is still protected by copyright.
  • There are also works that are eligible for copyright protection, but that protection has been waived, such as through a CC0 designation. These works are also effectively in the public domain. For more information, see

I'm not sure whether or not something is in the public domain. What about other works like photographs and sound recordings?

Copyright Ownership

What if I wrote or co-wrote something that has already been published and want to include it in my thesis?

  • Review your publisher agreement carefully. If needed, contact the publisher for more information about your right to reproduce the content. Many publishers post their copyright and author reuse policies on their website. An overview of standard publisher policies related to theses is available here.
  • It's always a good idea to notify your co-author(s) about reproducing jointly authored works. Again, read related agreements carefully to determine what rights co-authors might have with regards to reproducing jointly-authored works.

What if I'm not sure if someone (else) holds the copyright on a piece of text/graph/table/image/etc.?

  • Where possible, attempt to contact the owner or publisher of the content in question. If this is not possible, contact the Copyright Office via for more information.

Identifying Acceptable Terms of Use

How do I know if online content is infringing someone's copyright?

  • Try to determine who uploaded the content and look for their contact information on the source page. Is the content part of a larger, reputable site? When in doubt, attempt to contact the rights holder. In some cases the more difficult it is to identify who uploaded the content, the more likely it is that the content is an infringing copy.

I watched the Opening Up Copyright module on "Applying Fair Dealing" and I am still confused about fair dealing. Who can help me learn more?

Can the Copyright Office give me a definitive answer about whether my use of something is fair dealing or not?

  • While the Copyright Office can assist you with your fair dealing analysis, we cannot provide a "definitive" answer. The limits of what can be included under the fair dealing exception is a matter of interpretation and involves a number of factors. If there is a dispute with the copyright holder regarding such an interpretation of fair dealing, the ultimate decision maker would be the courts. However, in practice, for non-commercial uses (such as short excerpts included in your U of A thesis) with minimal economic impact on the copyright holder, such disputes are often resolved between the parties themselves.


Asking for Permissions

How long will it take to get permission to use someone else's content in my thesis?

  • This will depend on how easy it is to identify and contact the rights holder and how responsive they are to your request. Large publishers normally have staff to respond to permission requests and thus the turnaround time can be as quick as a few weeks (or even shorter). Private individuals, however, might choose to seek legal counsel before responding to your request, which could take much longer. To avoid delays in submitting your final thesis, seek rights holders' permissions as early in the process as possible.


What if I want to use part or all of my thesis in a future publication?

  • Identify future uses and possible publishers as early in the process as possible. Publisher policies about the reuse of thesis content can usually be found on their website or by contacting them directly. The Sherpa Romeo database provides access to the copyright and archiving policies of many journals and publishers. In addition, an overview of standard publisher policies related to theses is available here.

When do I need to consider an embargo for my thesis?

I contacted the publisher but they don't know who holds the rights for content I want to reproduce in my thesis. What now?

What happens if the rights holder won't give me permission to use their content in my thesis?

  • Consider using different content for inclusion in your thesis.
  • Alternatively, the material can be submitted as part of your thesis to your Committee for internal review but must be removed from your thesis prior to final submission. In your final thesis submission, leave a space where the content was located and, in its place, provide the following statement followed by a description of the item or a summary of its content and a full citation (with stable URL if relevant):

"This [describe item] was removed because of copyright restrictions." Example: This GRAPH was removed because of copyright restrictions. It depicted the results of an experiment related to TOPIC X. Original source: CREATOR/AUTHOR. (YEAR) TITLE. SOURCE / PUBLISHERS. PAGINATION. STABLE URL.

[Note that bibliographic elements and arrangement will vary depending on source and style guide.]

For further information about copyright issues related to theses, check out the For Graduate Students page on the Copyright Office website.