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Polymer Engineering - Research Methods: Copyright

A Framework for Analyzing a Copyright Use

Answer these five questions in order:

Question 1: Is the work protected by copyright?

  • Do you own the copyright?  (Do you really?)

    • Publisher rights: Your publisher may hold the copyright.

    • Work for hire: Your employer may hold the copyright.

    • Students have rights, too… Don't ignore your students' copyrights.

    • Beware: If you find something on a website, the website creator may not be the owner of the copyright of materials on the page.

  • Is it in the public domain?

    • Copyright holder gives up all rights

    • U.S. Federal government works:

      • Beware: Some information listed on government sites may not be in the public domain (if the work was produced by a non-government contract)

      • Beware: Slogans, emblems, or logos are covered by trademark law, not copyright law.

    • Works with expired term of copyright

    • Tools:

Question 2: Is there a specific exception in the law that covers my use?

  • Classroom use exemption, must be:

    • In a classroom (not anywhere else in the school)

    • In person, engaged in face-to-face instruction (not online or via distance)

    • At a non-profit educational institution (not at a for-profit)

    • Using a legitimately, legally-acquired copy

    • Performed or displayed (not distributed, handed out)

  • TEACH Act (distance / online education)

Question 3. Is there a license that covers my use?

Question 4. Is my use covered by Fair Use? (Reasonable and limited use)

  • Consider these four factors (see Fair Use Checklist):

    • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

    • The nature of the copyrighted work;

    • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

    • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Question 5. Do I need permission from the copyright owner?

  • Locate the copyright owner, explain your intended use, and request permission. (See sample letter)

    • No response or answer is no: reconsider use (is there something you can do to make it a fair use?) or choose another source.

    • Be aware of mashups: each element may require permission.

    • Pay for use: Copyright Clearance Center

Copyright Scenarios for Polymer Engineers

You want to use one of your figures that is from a journal article.

Do you need permission to reuse?

If you transferred copyright to the journal publisher, the figure is no longer yours. Authors have to sign a copyright transfer agreement and your reuse rights are detailed in that agreement. You can always recreate a figure from the data if necessary.


You are reading a journal article and want to use a figure in your dissertation.

Can you do this without permission?

NO. The copyright holder must give permission for you to legally reuse their work in a published work such as a dissertation.

Who would you contact?

DEPENDS on the publisher. Usually the Copyright Clearance Center will be the place to go. For ACS publications, the permissions request is on the website of the article in the right side column “Article Options”. Just click “Rights & Permissions”.


You want to reuse a figure from your lab group in your dissertation.

Can I do this without permission?

NO. You still have to ask the copyright holder, even if that person is the graduate student next to you in lab.

Can my advisor give me permission?

DEPENDS. If your advisor created the figure and gave permission for your group mate to use the figure, then your advisor owns copyright and can grant permission. If the student created the work, the figure belongs to them.

What if we used this figure in a peer-reviewed article?

DEPENDS. Usually, publishers require the scholar to transfer copyright to the publisher. In this manner, most professors do not own copyright to their peer-reviewed publications or the figures in them. But this depends on the publication forum.


You want to use a published chemical structure in your work.

Do I have to get copyright permission to present a chemical structure?

NO. A chemical structure is really data and you CANNOT COPYRIGHT DATA. NMR shifts and crystallographic space groups are other examples of non-copyrightable data. That said, the REPRESENTATION OF THE DATA IS COPYRIGHTABLE. NMR spectra, a crystallographic unit cell representation, etc…

Can I just copy any structure I find?

NO. You still have to create your own chemical structure (preferably using ChemDraw or a similar professional tool) and cannot just copy and paste someone else’s work. If you had access to the raw data from an experiment, you could recreate a table without permission.


You want to use a picture from the Internet in your thesis.

Do I need permission?           

YES. You either need permission, or you need to use an image with the permission already granted. The best practice is to find images with clear usage rights established, such as a creative-commons license, that allow you permission for non-commercial reuse.

Can I use a picture from the Internet in my peer-reviewed publications?

PROBABLY NOT. If you want to use the image for publication in a journal, I strongly encourage you take your own pictures. Journals generally want exclusive rights to all the content they publish.


You want to use a copyrighted image for teaching a lab course.

Can I use figures without permission?

YES. If ALL these conditions apply-

  • It is a non-profit institution.
  • It is for a classroom or similar place of instruction.
  • It is a performance or display that is part of normal systematic instruction.
  • The usage is related to your teaching content.

This is a statutory exception to normal copyright called the classroom exemption