May 9, 2019, by Julie Baldwin

Seven Deadly Research Copyright Myths Busted

Increased open access has confronted academic authors with complex copyright matters that they might have preferred to let lie.  But myths continue to litter researchers’ understanding of copyright.  Tony Simmonds from the Libraries’ Research Support Team straightens out some of these confusions:

1. Copyright in research publications that I write belongs to me.


If you are a student then by and large this is true.  But UK copyright law provides that first ownership of copyright in work written by staff belongs to the University. However custom and practice in most UK universities is to defer to authors of research papers to exercise this copyright.  Thus UoN policy commits the University to: “the practice of waiving assertion of its legal ownership of copyright in research publications”.

2. I have to sign away to a publisher copyright in research publications that I write.


Publishing a research paper does not necessitate the author signing away their copyright to a publisher.  If a publisher proposes this extreme step of wholly signing over copyright to them, it is worth considering options.  An alternative to assigning copyright altogether is for the author to retain copyright while granting a licence to publish.  This might be an exclusive licence (where dissemination and reuse of the content can only be authorised by the publisher), or it might be a non-exclusive licence (where control by the publisher of dissemination and reuse is limited to certain defined scenarios).

Don’t feel bound by the proposed terms of a publishing contract – until both parties sign, everything is up for negotiation!

3. I need the permission of the copyright holder before I can mine text or other data as part of my research.


Text and data mining to facilitate digital analysis of content usually involves making copies of large amounts of copyright material.  To legitimate this activity under UK law, a new statutory exception was introduced in 2014.  Not only is the permission of the copyright owner unnecessary, but any term of a contract that purports to prevent or restrict the making of copies for this purposes is unenforceable.

4. If it’s OK for somebody else’s copyright content to appear in a PhD thesis for examination, it’s OK for the same content to be published later.


A student working towards a PhD is customarily treated as benefitting from a “fair dealing” exception provided by UK copyright law, whereby actions to answer an exam question do not infringe copyright.  So reproducing third party material in the version of a thesis for examination, within reasonable limits, can safely be done without permission.

However this protection terminates upon award of the doctorate.  Before an author can then publish off the back of their thesis, they must establish permission for each instance of reproduction of third party content.  Note that open access to the full text via a repository, such as Nottingham eTheses, qualifies as publication in the same way as disseminating the same findings in a journal article.

Permission may take a variety of forms: other statutory exceptions may apply (e.g. for criticism and review, or for brief quotation); material may be licensed openly for reuse (e.g. via a Creative Commons licence); or specific written consent may be secured from the copyright owner.

5. There’s no copyright in data.


It is true that there is no copyright in a fact, so it can be argued that there is no copyright in a narrow discrete instance of data. Some more extensive instances (an answer to an interview question, for example) will attract copyright in their own right. In addition data compiled in a distinctive way can attract copyright to the compilation.  Finally, alongside copyright, it is possible that a separate protection called database right may apply to such a compilation.  Database right arises from creativity and labour involved in structuring and presenting data in a particular way (in contrast to copyright, which inheres in data content).

6. If material is available for free on a website, I’m free to reproduce it in my own research.


In UK law, the incidence of copyright in a work does not depend on its format or on whether payment is required for access. Therefore content accessed via the free internet enjoys the same protection as content locked behind a paywall. In order to reproduce such content lawfully, some form of prior permission must be established.

7. As supervisor of a Nottingham PhD student, I have the right to access their thesis even if it’s under embargo or under a restriction.


Copyright in the content of a PhD thesis belongs to the student who wrote it: it does not belong to their research supervisor.  Unless a prior agreement to share copyright ownership exists (for example with a commercial research sponsor), only the author of the thesis can lawfully reproduce or disseminate its content.

As custodian of the University’s repository for theses, the Library takes care to respect the right of authors to arrange for the University to embargo access to the content, or to place the content under a formal restriction.  This can be frustrating for a former supervisor who later needs access.  In these circumstances, specific authorisation for access by the thesis supervisor should be sought from the author.  Where the author cannot be reached, access will only be possible if Research & Innovation confirms to the Library that an agreement with a third party exists that legitimates access by the supervisor.

For more information about copyright please check out our copyright web pages. If you have any queries please contact

Image used CC BY 

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