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I am using a figure from a PhD thesis in an IEEE conference paper.

I have changed it slightly, mainly by adding text.

Though I will cite the author and publication, do I still need to pay the (what I am quoted as) $100 for rights from Springer? They have published the thesis under SpringerTheses.

How much can I use without paying the fee?

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If you were using the figure only for presentation you could likely use it under "fair use". However, I suspect that you are planning on having this published (I assume yours is a field where conference paper=publication...mine is not), and if that is the case you cannot use the figure or any part of it without proper permissions. A modification of a figure does not revoke copyright. Indeed, it might be a violation in itself. You can't use any of it in your publication.

While I am not familiar with the terms of SpringerTheses, you may find that the person who wrote the dissertation actually retains the rights to the figures. It wouldn't be the first time that a publisher tried to charge for something that they don't actually have the rights to. Why not contact the person who wrote the thesis and ask for permission to use (and modify) the figure? If they still retain rights to it, they can grant you the ability to use it for free.

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If you use it at all you are at risk. Copyright is a matter of civil law. Springer's highly skilled and highly paid legal staff will have a say in the outcome. If they press it, you will likely lose.

Their position could well be that the figure is a "work" in itself, separate from the thesis and using it is copying an entire "work". Whether that is a valid judgement or not is less material than the fact that it has to be adjudicated if it is raised. That would likely cost more than the fee.

Your best options are to pay the fee or to reconstruct your own figure from the data that it represents. Small changes probably won't be enough. A third option is to reference the figure (cite it) without reproducing it. Let the reader chase down the image, which is less satisfying, of course.

Note that this is a very conservative bit of advice. But it is you who are at risk here.

But, it may well be that Springer will just let it go, being a small thing at their scale. I don't suggest they will, of course.


Note that grant funds or your university (or employer) may actually be able to pay such fees on your behalf.

  • So basically if it appears in a Springer Publication, I pay them for rights to use it. And I can potentially forward the bill to my university? – Alexander Kartun-Giles Oct 30 '19 at 13:56
  • Possible, but ask first. Don't assume. Some places have a fund for that. – Buffy Oct 30 '19 at 14:15
  • Indeed, ask. My university wouldn't pay for such an expense so don't assume you're will. – GrotesqueSI Oct 30 '19 at 20:38
  • @GrotesqueSI, mine might have, if I debased myself sufficiently. Begging, etc. – Buffy Oct 30 '19 at 20:40
  • We're encouraged/told to put a line in grant budgets for image rights and are out of luck if we don't :-/ – GrotesqueSI Oct 30 '19 at 20:48

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