Understanding Your Academic IP and Copyright

For the 2021 SGSAH Summer School, I attended the Academic IP workshop, run by Amy Thomas. Though I have a basic understanding of copyright law, I didn’t know how it pertained to my work as a PhD. Throughout the workshop, I realised this is something every PhD should be familiar with, so I thought I’d share some of the basics I learned for those who couldn’t attend.

First things first: What actually is IP? Intellectual Property, from a creator’s perspective, refers to intangible property that has the right to be protected. For the purposes of arts and humanities PhDs, this protection usually lies under copyright law. Though copyright does not protect ideas, it does protect the expression of those ideas. Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into this, and it’s definitely worth familiarising yourself with the process in more detail. But for now, I want to look at how copyright works for PhDs as copyright holders and as users of copyrighted material.

PhDs as Copyright Holders

Probably the most important thing to understand about copyright is that, beyond expressing your ideas (i.e. writing a thesis chapter by hand or on the computer), you don’t have to necessarily do anything to obtain it. In the United States, a person can register their copyright, but in the U.K. nothing like that is necessary. As soon as you’ve expressed your original ideas in a fixed format, you have copyright and, therefore, legal protection. In the U.K., copyright lasts for the holder’s entire life, plus seventy years. After this time, the work will go into the public domain unless transferred via the holder’s Will to another person or estate.

One of the more specific questions I had for Amy with regards to this was whether that copyright changes at all once we submit the thesis. Does the university have any right to our work, or is it still 100% our own? Amy said that, while it does depend on the university and funding bodies, most universities do not assert rights over students’ theses. That being said, PhD theses are often required to be made available, open access, to the public within twelve months of submission (usually through Enlighten). Therefore, it’s important to remember that you can request to embargo your thesis, which would prevent the public from accessing the material for a period of time. If you plan on publishing all or part of your thesis, requesting an embargo is a good step to take.

While I’m on the topic of publishing, something else to keep in mind as a PhD or an ECR is publishing contracts. It’s always best to approach these contracts with an appropriate level of caution. Take time to go through the contract fully so you know what rights the publishing company will gain when you sign, and which ones you will solely retain. If you have a friend, colleague or supervisor who is familiar with the process, ask them about their experiences to make sure your contract isn’t requesting more than it should.

Further, because many PhDs also act as employees for their universities (whether as Graduate Teaching Assistants or in some other contracted role), it’s also important for us to understand how copyright works when we’re creating content specifically for work. One of the exceptions to copyright of intellectual property is original content created in the course of employment for your job. An example of this would be PowerPoints, syllabi, handouts, and recordings created for university courses you teach on. Because these are created for your job, your employer would own the copyright to them rather than you and would therefore be able to use the creations at their discretion. 

A grey typewriter sitting on a table. The paper inside the typewriter says 'COPYRIGHT CLAIM'.
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

PhDs as Users of Copyrighted Material

The second half of Amy’s workshop was focused on the specifics of using other people’s intellectual property, whether as part of our theses, in conference presentations or in journal articles. Most of us probably come across this when we need to use images. What images are we allowed to use? How can we use them without worrying about infringing on someone’s copyright? The answers to these questions can get a bit complicated, but Amy gave some advice on how best to ensure we’re not doing anything wrong.

First, there are certain exceptions when using copyrighted material. These fall under ‘fair use’, meaning you shouldn’t have to get permission: Parody, attributed quotations, criticism/review, research and education. For example, if you want to use an image in a PowerPoint you make for a conference, that should fall under ‘fair use’, so long as you don’t claim the image, or the content of the image, was created by you. There are also image websites, such as Unsplash, that only include images that are free to use. As Amy advised, however, it is always, always good practice to credit the material you use, even if you’re sure it falls under ‘fair use’.

My question for Amy during this part of the workshop was related to using images from archives and special collections in theses and journal articles. While I knew that I could freely use such images in my thesis – again, so long as they’re credited – I had run into complications when trying to use images for an article I wanted to publish in a journal that wasn’t Open Access. If these images from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were now well in the public domain, why would I have to pay archives to use them? The answer is, again, a bit complicated. Basically, most archives and museums assert ownership over their held items, meaning they have the right to decide how the public can use images of their collections. This means that the particulars of what you can use, how you can use it, and whether you have to pay varies between institutions. Regardless, if you plan to use images of archived material in any published work that is not Open Access (meaning readers have to pay to access the material), you should be prepared to pay. The best way to know for sure, however, is to directly ask the archive or museum.

A breakdown of Creative Commons shorthand. It shows the available licenses and definitions of the terms. Attribution: others can copy, distribute, display, perform and remix your work if they credit your name as requested by you.
No Derivative Works: Others can only copy, distribute, display or perform verbatim copies of your work.
Share Alike: Others can distribute your work only under a license identical to the one you have chosen for your work
Non-Commercial: Others can copy, distribute, display, perform or remix your work but for non-commercial purposes only.
Photo from Research Gate

Moving forward, I wanted to include the image on the left as a helpful guide to ‘Creative Commons’. CC details the allowances a copyright holder freely gives to the public. Understanding these symbols is useful not only for when figuring out what you’re allowed to do with someone else’s intellectual property but for when/if you want to do the same with your own IP. For example, if you own a blog or a website and want to clearly communicate with the public what they can use and how they can use it, these symbols are perfect for that. 

As I said before, IP and copyright can be convoluted, but it’s important for PhDs to have at least a basic understanding of them, if only to ensure that our own work is properly protected. I highly encourage all PhDs to take some time to inform themselves about their rights, and Amy Thomas has graciously agreed to act as a point of contact for those who have more questions. You can reach her at Amy.Thomas@glasgow.ac.uk.

Feature Photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash

If you’re interested in writing a guest post for the SGSAH blog, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk

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