In the introductory chapter of my thesis, I've been surveying the previous work in my field. As part of this, I've used images from some of those publications and included them as Figures in my own thesis.

Occasionally, I have slightly edited them - for instance, changing the labelling.

I usually only use one image from each paper.

My understanding is that this falls under academic fair use, and I do not need permission from any of the publishers to re-use these images in my thesis.

Am I correct?


It is fairly easy to get permission using RightsLink with most publishers. Just fill out the form on the website and you get the licence immediately.

Bill Barth's comment is extremely important - fair use is a defence rather than a prophylactic and I for one don't want to be in a position of having to defend my use of Figures in a court of law.

Of course, it is extremely unlikely that any publisher would do such a thing, but my feeling is it's better to be safe than sorry.

  • In these cases, I usually see them as "reproduced with permission from ...". I don't know if it is legal, but asking for permission seems to be the norm.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 20:43
  • 1
    @Davidmh you can write 'reproduced with permission from'... if you obtained permission. I also saw 'courtesy of' in case where it was evident that there was no permission given by the original owner.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 20:53
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    @CapeCode That is my point. Perhaps it is missing a word, "I don't know if it is a legal requirement, but asking for permissions seems to be the norm".
    – Davidmh
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 20:58
  • I only see "reproduced with permission from"... in the case of using others images in another publication. I'm just using them in my thesis, that will not be published and the copyright will remain my own.
    – ATTMK2
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 21:07
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    @ATTMK2, that neither how theses nor copyrights work. You use is probably a fair use in the US, but it's usually very easy to get permission, so you should seek it out. Journals frequently have a page or form for asking for this, and it's usually free for a single image. Theses are typically published, otherwise what's the point?
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 21:11

2 Answers 2


You probably have a fair use right in the US to use images from copyright-protected works without permission from the copyright holder since you are using them for a critical purpose. But, -BUT-, fair use is a defense to a copyright infringement lawsuit that is not guaranteed to be successful. If you are sued by one of the copyright holders, you will have to assert this defense to them and probably also to a judge or jury in a court of law. This may cost you (or your institution if they choose to defend you) a large sum of money to take to court. $100k would not be unheard of. Given that, unless you have this kind of money just sitting around, you would be well served by asking the copyright holders (not necessarily the article authors, more likely the article publishers) for permission to use the images. It is usually granted.

  • 2
    This seems unnecessarily alarmist to me. The copyright holder in this situation has probably not suffered any economic loss from the student's use, and therefore little motive to sue, and a lot to lose (time and legal fees).
    – user1482
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 5:38
  • Thank you Bill, this is an extremely important comment and clarified a few aspects for me. In particular, the point about Fair Use being a defence to a challenge. I had assumed that it meant they did not have claims to sue in the first place. Of course, they are unlikely to do such a thing, but if we want to play it safe, it's important to get the permission.
    – ATTMK2
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 15:42

Fair use is an important freedom under US law, and as with any civil liberty, it's important for people to assert it, or else they will lose it. Your example is a classic case of fair use, under all four criteria.

If the copyright holder is upset about it, they will most likely simply ask you to delete the images. They have little incentive to go nuclear. You haven't hurt their economic interests (which is one of the criteria for fair use), and a lawsuit would cost them money and time.

If you want to be polite, you can send the author an email explaining that you're using their image, that you consider this to be legal under fair use, but that if they have any concerns, you hope they'll let you know.

  • 3
    The author is probably not the copyright holder and has nothing to do with whether or not the student will get sued or have to retract their paper. When it comes to journal articles form the thesis, they will probably require the student to sign something saying they have the right to assign the copyright for everything in their submission. Isn't easier to go to the publisher and ask for written permission instead of crossing one's fingers and hoping? I think you're probably right that nothing bad will happen, but why take the risk?
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 13:33

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