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Copyright and Patent Issues

Copyright - Overview

Students submitting theses/dissertations should be aware of copyright and fair use considerations. Understanding Copyright and Fair Use will help reduce your concerns.

Copyright is a protection provided to authors of originals works in the United States. Copyright arises automatically when an original work is fixed in a tangible form of expression. In general, tangible forms include literary works, musical works, including any accompanying words, dramatic works, including any accompanying music, pantomimes and choreographic works, pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works, sound recordings, and architectural works.

Poetry, prose, computer programming, artwork, musical notation, recorded music and/or song, animations, video footage, Java applets, a Web page, architectural drawings, and photographs are all copyrightable expressions. However, facts, exact duplications of public domain works, ideas, systems, works created by employees of the Federal Government, titles and short phrases, logos and slogans, and forms that only collect information do not qualify as copyrightable.

The author generally owns copyright.  However, in some cases in which an employee has done the work for the employer ("work for hire"), the employer owns the work.

Copyright gives authors/owners of copyrighted work the exclusive right to reproduce the work, to make derivative works, to distribute copies of the work, to perform the work, to display the work, and for sound recordings to perform the work publicly.

Fair Use

Fair use lets you use parts of works created by others in your work. Sometimes you need to obtain permission from the authors/owners of an original work to use parts of it.

The concept of fair use is somewhat vague when discussed in the abstract. Its meaning depends critically on the particular facts of the individual situation. The law does not clearly distinguish which uses are fair and which are not.

The "fair use" doctrine allows limited reproduction of copyrighted works for educational and research purposes. The relevant portion of the copyright statute says that the "fair use" of a copyrighted work, including reproduction "for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research" is not an infringement of copyright. The law lists the following factors as the ones to be evaluated in determining whether a particular use of a copyrighted work is a permitted "fair use" rather than an infringement of the copyright:

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

Although all of these factors will be considered, the last factor is the most important in determining whether a particular use is "fair." Where a work is available for purchase or license from the copyright owner in the medium or format desired, copying of all or a significant portion of the work instead of purchasing or licensing a sufficient number of "authorized" copies would be unfair. Where only a small portion of a work is to be copied and the work would not be used if purchase or licensing of a sufficient number of authorized copies were required, the intended use is more likely to be found to be fair. However, there is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Moreover, acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

You can obtain permission from an author or publisher using this sample copyright permission letter.

Visit the US Copyright Office website for the most recent information about Copyright and Fair Use. To search for registered works and documents from January 1, 1978 to the present, click on the Search Records tab from the main page.  For information on how to locate copyright records prior to January 1, 1978, consult the following guide: The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office.  Note: A fee-based service to conduct the search and produce a report on its findings is available through the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress.

Alternatively, you may contact the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), a pay-per-use, fee-based service, that obtains copyright permissions for you.

Should you register your copyright ?

As the author of a dissertation, you own the copyright to your work just by virtue of being its author. Most dissertation authors will not find themselves in a situation in which someone infringes on or violates the copyright by using it without proper crediting or producing it as if it were someone else’s work. If you are concerned that this might happen, however, it might be worthwhile to pay the extra fee required in order to register your copyright. Here is what registering the copyright accomplishes:

  1. It is a prerequisite for filing an infringement action against someone in court and serves as prima facie evidence of copyright validity.
  2. A copyright owner can recover statutory damages and attorneys’ fees only if the work is registered prior to infringement or within three months of publication.
  3. If the infringement occurred prior to registration, the copyright owner can still file an action but is limited to actual damages and injunctive relief (the ability to stop the infringement). You could register the copyright after you find out about an infringement, in other words, and still take some action against the violator.
  4. By paying the copyright registration fee to ProQuest Information and Learning - UMI, you are paying them to register the copyright on your behalf. Alternatively, you can do it on your own now or later. All you have to do is fill out a short form, and mail it, along with two copies of the work and the fee, to the U.S. copyright office. Under some circumstances you may file for copyright electronically. Please visit their website,, for more information.

As this suggests, registering the copyright might not be necessary in many cases. However, if your work is something that has the potential to make money (e.g., book royalties), it is probably wise to register the copyright.

In addition to filing for a regular copyright license, you may obtain a Creative Commons license. A Creative Commons license is a legal license or tool that describes how you, as an author, will allow others to use your copyrighted material.  Creative Common licenses are not intended to be used as a stand-alone alternative, but used in conjunction with a copyright obtained from the U.S. Copyright Office. For more detailed information see:  Explanations of creative commons license conditions can be found at

Additional Resources on Copyright

  • University System of Georgia Copyright Policy provides an understanding of copyright and educational fair use as well as a basic understanding of the legal background of copyright law and fair use
  • Copyright Indiana University
  • U.S. Code, Title 17, Copyrights website (Cornell University) contains detailed information about Copyright.
  • Copyright Law & Graduate Research (ProQuest)
  • ProQuest Guides on Intellectual Property and Publishing Agreements (GW ETD Administrative Website)
  • AU School of Communications Center for Social Media This website provides a series of documents on Code of Best Practices for Fair Use focusing primarily on literary and multi-media resources.
  • Creative
  • Gelman Library Research Guides

      Dissertation Research includes links to tools to help you determine the fair use of resources

      Copyright Basics for GW


    If your dissertation work could lead to your seeking a patent for a new invention or discovery, you may want to "embargo" (or delay) public release of your dissertation for a specified period (e.g., a year) by selecting one of the three standard embargo periods that ProQuest supports (e.g. 6 months, 1 year, 2 years) to give yourself time to file a patent. During the initial steps of uploading your thesis or dissertation, you will be given an opportunity to select one of these embargo periods. Once you make such an invention or discovery public, you may lose your opportunity for a patent in the United States if you do not apply for a patent within a year.

    If you develop a patentable invention with University funds, including graduate student support or facilities, please also understand that you have a responsibility to disclose the invention to the University Office of the Vice President for Research. They can provide you with GW’s “Policy on Patents and Scholarly Works”, and an invention disclosure form. Both the patent policy and the copyright policy are available at the GW University Policies website.

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