I will soon submit my PhD thesis. The thesis is written in Latex and version controlled with git. I want to add a license file, but don't know what to choose. For my software, I choose the permissive MIT license, but I have no clue if that is suitable for a thesis as well. Searching on the web, I found that many use the Creative Commons (CC), but I don't know why. And there are also several types of CC. What I want is: everyone can

  • use the knowledge in the thesis even for commercial purposes, supposing that my work is cited
  • use, modify and redistribute the helper tools (files for compilation, document format, etc.) supposing that the original license is kept


Finally, based on your suggestions, I chose the CC-BY 4.0 license and set the repository containing the sources to public.

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    @NateEldredge That's less of (= not at all) a license issue and more of a (potential) embargo issue. If necessary, a thesis publication can be embargoed until after relevant papers have been accepted for publication. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 12:17
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    If you are wanting a Free license, you may want to ask on opensource.stackexchange.com
    – ivanivan
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 12:56
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    Another important consideration: pay close attention to the licenses of anything you include in your thesis. CC licenses with ShareAlike will make your thesis carry the same license. Say you use a picture that has a ShareAlike license for your cover. Now your thesis also has the same license, even though you may have wanted otherwise.
    – Kenji
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 15:06
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    @ZoltánCsáti Why would you have a screen shot of an article in your thesis? Also, using LaTeX and git isn't relevant to licensing. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 17:51
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    @ZoltánCsáti Yes, and your thesis isn't LaTeX or git, so LaTeX and git aren't relevant to licensing (or, actually, to your question at all, which is the point I was making). Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 19:05

5 Answers 5


CC-BY seems to be the industry standard license for open access papers, see Why CC-BY? for a discussion of the reasons. It's a well-known license, that allows various kinds of later use (including commercial), and hence it's a good choice for papers and (I think) theses as well. The BY part requires "appropriate attribution". For academic reuse you can pretty much count on the attribution coming in the form of citations.

Note, however, that CC-BY is not a "viral" license. That is, modifications don't have to preserve the license. If you want that property, there is the CC-BY-SA (share-alike) variant, but my understanding is that it can make it problematic to create repositories of documents. This is one of the reasons for recommending CC-BY for papers. However, you could always put a CC-BY license on the thesis, and a stricter one on the helper tools.

Just make sure that whatever you choose is compatible with any copyright policy imposed by your university. Places I'm familiar with just request non-exclusive distribution rights to put it in their online library databases, but I imagine other places can be more restrictive.

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    Note, however, that if you first apply a permissive license to a work then you cannot apply a more restrictive one later to that same work. You can go the other direction, however. And, for a work with a general restrictive license, you can grant individuals a more permissive one. But, once you "open the door", it stays open.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 20:32
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    @Buffy: Hmmm... that statement is not quite correct. As copyright holder, you have the right to re-release a work under a more restrictive license (which does not, however, entitle you to any demands on those who received your work under the previous, more relaxed license). Further, national laws may entitle you to revoke a license under certain conditions (German § 42 UrhG for example -- not all the world is equal with regards to copyright laws). That one might be difficult to enforce though. (StackExchange, for example, doesn't feel they're bound to this...)
    – DevSolar
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 9:28
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    @Buffy But if you don't actually have a copy of that given work, then you can't demand a copy under the old more-permissive licence. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 15:25
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    @MartinBonner. Demand? probably no. Obtain? maybe yes. Do you think BSD can now invalidate macOS by changing its license unilaterally?
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 15:27
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    @DevSolar paragraph 42 isn't necessarily applicable to CC licenses, see this reference. StackExchange is perfectly correct. Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 2:38

Copyright only applies to the way ideas or information are presented, not the information itself. That's why you were able to just cite other researchers in your thesis without asking them. Therefore, you don't need to use any special license to make the information in your thesis usable by others, for any purpose at all.

The auxiliary files are more like software, so you can use either CC-BY-SA or GPL.


What license to choose for my PhD thesis?

Ask your PhD advisor. There could be legal constraints (e.g. imposed by some research grant contract funding your PhD work) you might not be aware of. But he/she certainly could redirect you to the knowledgeable persons (e.g. your University lawyers).

In Europe, for H2020 or HorizonEurope funded PhD work, some Open Content policy is required (e.g. at my CEA/LIST institution, it should be published under HAL).

As an European taxpayer I dislike the idea of increasing profit of ScienceDirect (probably mostly owned by american retirement funds) with the money I pay in taxes (most H2020 PhD work are 100% funded by the European Commission), so I approve such policies.

Alternatively, you or your advisor might not care at all about legal constraints. At Paris 6 University, they did -in practice- vary a lot from one year to the next one in the previous century, depending on the government directives given to the university rector


There's no need to release the source of your thesis (i.e. the LaTeX files). Doing so is probably of more benefit to those who wish to plagiarise than to anyone else. The actual thesis (the final PDF) is published by the university, and you'll need to take into account their restrictions. You'll also need to take into account restrictions placed on any literature figures you may have used.

As you don't say where you are, here's a summary of the UK situation when theses are published online through the British Library.

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    I wrote my thesis for a Belgian and a French university. The reason I want to share the source is that it can help later PhD students on how to format complex documents such as a thesis. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 11:23
  • That's a good reason. I do the same but not publicly, only to students I'm already supporting.
    – Chris H
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 11:33
  • Currently the Bitbucket repository hosting my thesis is private. I was thinking of making it public. How do you achieve that only those students can access your material who you support? Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 11:39
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    "Doing so is probably of more benefit to those who wish to plagiarise than to anyone else" - this a very backwards way of thinking. Sharing the source code publicly can help thousands of students worldwide, which is far more important than risking some "plagiarizing" the work somehow. Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 2:40
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    @ChrisH Maybe a good strategy would be to share the preamble only and the detailed description on how I made my thesis structured (that was not that straightforward and I used a lot of blog entries and tex.stackexchange answers for that). Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 13:56

The following applies to dissertations in the US:

  • You can own the copyright to the dissertation itself. At the point where the dissertation is bound you should be offered the opportunity to register the copyright for a small fee (last I knew it was $50).
  • Any software may fall under the auspices of intellectual property agreements with your university and/or any institutions which funded your work. Practically speaking you can say it's under Some License and be fine but if there is any hint that it may be worth money and have commercial potential you will quickly find yourself in an ... undesirable position. Speak to your advisor before proceeding!
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    $50 is hardly "small". Also, note that copyright registration is no longer required in the US (or in any Berne Convention signatory, which is most countries). Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 17:53
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    @DavidRicherby My understanding is that the US is a bit of a mess in this regard. Yes, copyright is granted at the time of creation. However, registration is required if you actually want to sue someone infringing on your copyright. (Registration can occur up to five years after creation of the work, and supposedly even after the infringement started, but it's not clear to me what kind of damages one could sue for in that case.) Now, this may be a pointless distinction for a dissertation (who sues over one?), but might be good to know when writing something more valuable, e.g. a textbook.
    – Anyon
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 11:10

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