Reuse of figures, images, and other content in theses

MIT LibrariesThere are two key questions to consider when determining whether you can reuse a figure, table, image, or other content in your thesis without obtaining permission from the copyright holder:

Is the figure copyrighted?

For the most part the answer to this will be yes. Generally, once the content was put in tangible form, and unless it was created prior to 1923 or is a US government publication, it is copyrighted.

Would your reuse be considered fair use?

US copyright law’s fair use exemption allows authors to use portions of a copyrighted work under certain circumstances without obtaining permission. To determine whether or not a proposed reuse qualifies for this fair use exemption, there are four factors to consider:

Four factor test for fair use:

  • For what purpose would the work be used?
    • Nonprofit, educational, scholarly or research use favors fair use
    • Transformative use (repurposing, recontextualizing) favors fair use
  • What is the nature is of the work to be used?
    • Published, fact-based content favors fair use
  • How much of the work would be used?
    • Small or less significant amounts favor fair use
      • Note: an image or figure would commonly be considered a work in and of itself, weighing against fair use; or could summarize the key point of an article, also weighing against fair use.
    • What effect on the market for that work would the use have?
      • If there would be no effect, or it is not possible to obtain permission to use the work, this favors fair use

    Applying this 4-factor test is not a clear-cut process, and authors need to weigh all four factors to decide whether a fair use exemption seems to apply to a proposed reuse.

    See the Using Images guide and an FAQ for more information on fair and appropriate use of images, or try the web-based self-teaching quiz.

    Another path: license agreements with some major publishers allow for reuse

    Through the MIT Libraries’ contracts with Elsevier, Sage, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley, it’s possible to reuse figures in your thesis without asking permission or paying any fee.

    More info

    Obtaining permission for use:

    If you do determine that you need to seek permission for reuse, and you want to reuse a portion of a book or article, an efficient place to begin is the Copyright Clearance Center.

    If you are seeking permission to reuse content from formats other than a book or article (e.g. music or film) consult the University of Texas Need Permission? page.

    For more information about thesis preparation and copyright of theses:

    See “Specifications for Thesis Preparation

    If you have further questions: