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Say that I am writing a grant application to be submitted to a funding agency. The application is not a public document and so it will be only accessible to the review panel, the collaborators involved, and administrative staff both at my institution and at the funding agency.

Now imagine I want to make a point, in particular regarding the wider interest of my proposed research topic, for which a figure that appears in Nice Paper by Reputed Author is a perfect fit. Unless Nice Paper has been published under some Creative Commons-type license (assume it hasn't) copyright in principle prevents me from freely using this figure in my proposal.

However, one could argue that if 1) I credit Reputed Author for the figure and reference Nice Paper in my proposal, and 2) given that I am not using the figure for commercial purposes and that only a very limited amount of people can access this document, then 3) it is reasonable (and it constitutes fair use) for me to reproduce the figure without seeking explicit permission. Getting explicit permission could potentially be a tiresome process since it's probably the journal that published Nice Paper that holds the copyright.

Am I right to assume that reproduction of copyrighted material on a research proposal with the characteristics described above constitutes fair use?

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A proposal is not a publication, and as such you do not need to worry about the usual strictures of copyright. It doesn't really matter what the technicalities are: if the proposal is to remain private, de facto it is as though it doesn't exist from the copyright holder's perspective.

Academic honesty, however, is another story. If the figure is not yours, you absolutely must give credit to its actual author. Further, you need to ask yourself: is including somebody else's work actually good evidence for my ability to execute the work that I am proposing? In some cases, it may still be the right thing to do, but usually if it is a diagram, you will probably do better to create your own independent version, and if it is data you will probably do better to cite the result but not to waste precious proposal space reproducing their figure.

  • I would do work on basic science (materials discovery) but want to highlight the real-world applications of these materials, which I think are very important when motivating the basic research. I was thinking more about reproducing those figures that I have no competence to produce myself. – Miguel May 21 '15 at 12:06
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    @Miguel I can't judge without knowing your specifics, but typically proposal space is quite constrained and precious. Ask yourself the following serious question: to what degree is this image really being used for its content vs. being used as a piece of clip art / stock photography? – jakebeal May 21 '15 at 12:27
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    @Miguel Do you have an advisor or a more senior collaborator that you can talk to? Based on your inexperience with proposals, I'm guessing that you are a postgraduate student or a young postdoc. A more experienced opinion might help you to decide whether or not (in your specific case) the reproduced figure is worth the real estate. When there are serious stakes on the table, proposal reviewers will be much more serious about things than if they were just deciding on whether a new paper on the arXiv is worth reading. – Moriarty May 21 '15 at 12:52
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    @Miguel For the first draft, just stick it in and don't worry about it (attributing correctly of course), but add a note that will remind you and your mentors to revisit this question later. – jakebeal May 21 '15 at 13:02
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    from the point of view of a review panel...is it more effective to use at least some art to catch the eye at the expense of removing some content? — In my experience, absolutely not. Crudely: If your proposal has room for filler, it doesn't have enough content. If the art isn't directly relevant to the content of the proposal, it's filler. – JeffE May 22 '15 at 14:51

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