So, I've seen a really nice figure in a paper; what's the best way to 'get a copy'?

Will it be on the publisher's website? Do I need to draw my own version? Email the author?

And, finally, how does the answer vary for (a) those wishing to republish the figure in their own work, (b) those not wishing to publish the figure e.g. for student coursework.

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    Getting a copy of a figure is easy: Use the marquee tool in your favorite PDF viewer. Getting permission to reuse it is a bit more complicated.
    – JeffE
    Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 22:40
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    Ask permission from the copyright holder first. Give complete information on how the figure will be used (e.g., will you profit from using it?). If you are going to modify the figure, state that it was adapted from the source. Also, you usually need to include a copyright statement with the figure (e.g., (c) 2012 Copyright holder's name) as well as mentioning the source of the figure.
    – JRN
    Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 0:06
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    Many publishers have a copyright permission page on their website that may indicate when you do not need to seek permission. For a similar question, see meta.cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/385/… Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 4:41
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    A good tool for this is the open-source linux program pdfimages, which is distributed as part of the ubuntu poppler-utils package.
    – user1482
    Commented Sep 9, 2012 at 1:14
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    @PeterGreen And that's one of many reasons why Adode Reader is not my favorite PDF viewer! Either Preview or Skim on the Mac produces a nice vector version.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 5:18

4 Answers 4


Unless the paper is available under a very permissive license, such as Creative Commons Attribution, you will need to seek permission. (There may be other legal possibilities, such as fair use or fair dealing, but that's a little subtle. See this story for more information on that.)

The copyright owner is the person you need permission from. Who that is will generally be marked on the published paper (often it is the publisher, and sometimes the author). If the publisher holds the copyright, then it is still polite to ask permission from the authors as well, although this is not legally required.

Big commercial publishers will often have a department for dealing with this, typically with a name like "Permissions". If you can't find such a department, then you can try just writing to the journal in question (look at their web page to try to find e-mail addresses).

If you are lucky, they will quickly approve your use of the figure. If you are not lucky, they will ask for money.

And, finally, how does the answer vary for (a) those wishing to republish the figure in their own work,

There are definitely legal issues here.

(b) those not wishing to publish the figure e.g. for student coursework.

If you never make the work available to the public, then it is hard to imagine that the copyright owner will ever learn about it or complain (and they would look foolish if they tried to sue someone for using their figure in a homework assignment). However, you still have a moral obligation to cite the source of the figure.

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    At least in the US, using a figure in your coursework that will never be published falls under "fair use". You do not need permission, but you definitely should cite.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 11:08
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    Asking the publisher for permission is the worst thing you can possibly do. In the US, fair use applies to both of the cases described by the OP. Publishers wish you didn't know that fair use existed, so they will try to extort money from you for your use of a legal right that is automatically yours.
    – user1482
    Commented Sep 9, 2012 at 1:08
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    In many cases it's acutally not at all clear that fair use applies to reprinting a figure in your own paper, and there's genuine debate on this among knowledgeable people (see, for example, the comments in the story I linked to). There are cases where you can make a very compelling case for fair use, for example if you are criticizing or commenting on the figure itself. However, most cases are less clear-cut, and many publishers will be unwilling to reprint figures without explicit permission (they don't care enough about establishing that this is fair use to want to risk a legal fight). Commented Sep 9, 2012 at 2:07
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    @BenCrowell: That's bad advice. If you are planning to use the figure in a publication, then it is required to secure permission. Failure to do so exposes you to all sorts of bad consequences, including possibly retraction of the publication!
    – aeismail
    Commented Oct 14, 2012 at 9:27
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    How would this answer change for the use in a thesis? Or would all the same rules apply as for a paper?
    – Jonny
    Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 9:54

In addition to the answer by @AnonymousMathematician, it's important to remember how to cite a figure from another paper in your own. This link gives a good explanation on how to do so: for publications using the APA style guide, for instance, it should be in the format

Figure #. Description/Note. Adapted from “Title of Article,” by F. M. Author and C. D. Author, year, Title of Journal, volume, p. xx. Copyright year by the Name of Copyright Holder. Adapted [or Reprinted] with permission.

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    I edited this because different publishers have different guidelines. In some cases, you can say "Reprinted from Ref. XX with permission," and the longer copyright notice isn't required.
    – aeismail
    Commented Oct 14, 2012 at 9:29

In case some one wants IEEE-related answer (similar to what other responders have said), see page 17 of this IEEE presentation:

Reuse of Published Materials

  • You must cite and acknowledge any published materials that you make re-use of

    • Examples: Diagrams/figures from an existing paper

      • Extracted and re-used => must get permission from author/publisher (copyright owner) and cite and acknowledge

      • Redrawn with modifications => should cite and indicated “adapted from” or “based on”

  • This includes your own prior published work!


The prestigious American Institute of Physics (AIP) has a FAQ page that is golden:


Answered questions include:

  • When do I need permission to reuse material
  • Must permission be in writing?
  • How do I obtain permissions?
  • What is a credit line and where does it go?
  • What do I do with the permissions once I receive them?

Continuing with aeismail comment under ElCid's answer,

I edited this because different publishers have different guidelines. In some cases, you can say "Reprinted from Ref. XX with permission," and the longer copyright notice isn't required. – aeismail

The AIP states the following:

[...] The original publisher will provide you with their preferred wording for the credit line (in most cases). A credit line consisting only of “Used with permission” is not sufficient. An example of a typical complete credit line appears as:

Reproduced with permission from J. Org. Chem. 63, 99 (1998). Copyright 1998 American Chemical Society.

Note that even when reusing material in the public domain (for which obtaining permission does not apply), you must include an appropriate credit line, which states the original source. An example of an appropriate credit line for material in the public domain follows:

Reprinted from A. H. Harvey and J. C. Bellows, Evaluation and Correlation of Steam Solubility Data for Salts and Minerals of Interest in the Power Industry, NIST Technical Note 1387 (U.S. GPO, Washington, DC, 1997).


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