British Thesis Service copyright form

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  • I know I'm supposed to be answering questions on this forum, but I just got a question from a co-worker that stumped me, and I had a feeling some of my CAN teammates (especially the ones in ILL) might be able to help:

    A librarian would like to purchase a British dissertation that comes from Oxford University and put it into our library collection. Distribution of British dissertations is centralized within the British Library. According to the British Library Thesis Service page (, some institutions require that "the person wishing to consult the thesis" must sign a Thesis Declaration Form. I've been told that when we get British theses via interlibrary loan, someone makes arrangements for the person borrowing the item to sign the form.

    It gets more complicated if we plan to put the dissertation in our collection and circulate it. Who signs the form then? The acquiring librarian? Someone in central acquisitions? I think it would be logistically impossible to require every future borrower to sign the form, though given the nature of the declaration, it seems like information we should pass on to anyone who uses the work.

    The Thesis Declaration Form states:

    "I recognise that the copyright of the above-described thesis rests with the author or university to which it was submitted, and that no quotation from it or information derived from it may be published without the prior written consent of the author or university (as it may be appropriate)."

    This raises other thorny questions of fair use and international copyright law, but my main concern right now is the librarian who needs to submit the signed form in order to buy the thesis he wants.

    My questions are: Has anyone else dealt with the Thesis Declaration Form? How do you handle it? Who signs the form? Does it matter?

  • There's a similar page pasted or bound in the front of every one of our University of Oklahoma theses and dissertations. The most current version says:

    "This volume is the property of the University of Oklahoma, but the literary rights of the author are a separate property and must be respected. Passages must not be copied or closely paraphrased without the previous written consent of the author. If the reader obtains any assistance from this volume, he must give credit in his own work.

    "I grant the University of Oklahoma Libraries permission to make a copy of my thesis upon the request of individuals or libraries. This permission is granted with the understanding that a copy will be provided for research purposes only, and that requestors will be informed of these restrictions. [name and date]

    "A library which borrows this dissertation for use by its patrons is expected to secure the signature of each user.

    "This dissertaion by ------ has been used by the following persons, whose signatures attest their acceptance of the above restrictions."

    Sometimes these pages get signed multiple times; I suspect a lot of times they don't. I do wonder what the point is, and both the lack of confidentiality and the "previous written consent" go against the spirit of fair use for scholarship. However, the fact that a thesis usually only exists in a small handful of print copies may be a good reason to give it some extra protection. To answer your question, it looks like should be the patron signing it; the librarian isn't "using" the thesis in the same way as the researcher and doesn't need to sign it.
  • Thanks, Janet. It's interesting to know similar practices exist in the U.S. I wonder how legally binding those statements are, and how binding the signatures are. It seems to me that if a person uses a dissertation but doesn't sign the paper, she would be free to make full fair use of the dissertation regardless of the restrictions the library is trying to place. But would the library then be considered liable if the copyright holder tries to file suit? That doesn't seem likely.

    Overall, this seems like a policy that is very difficult to enforce. Then again, so is much of copyright law these days.
  • I don't really think this is a copyright issue, Molly, since both the British Library declaration and the one from Oklahoma misstate the copyright laws of their respective nations. Quotation is allowed, of course, under both fair use and parallel exceptions in the UK law. It is generally the case that a content owner cannot revoke a privilege in the law simply by unilateral declaration, but they can do so by contract. The problem with this attempt to do that, however, is that there will be no "privity of contract" to bind subsequent users of the British dissertation; it does not seem to anticipate library lending (which is subject to an owner's public lending right in the UK), although the Oklahoma statement does take that situation into account.

    It seems to me that your real dilemma is ethical. Whatever librarian signs the statement for you may feel bound to at least communicate its terms to later borrowers, even if s/he disagrees with those requirements. On the other hand, the terms seem oppressive and contrary to the purpose of both copyright law and scholarship. I doubt I would feel any qualms about putting this item into circulation, where it would get exactly the same protection all other works are entitled to under US law (which is the fundamental spirit of the Berne Convention), but that is an ethical decision that your staff will have to make.
  • To me, those statements look like an attempt to circumvent what is allowed under copyright law by trying to force a license. I think we're going to see that type of language more often, and I think it's both contrary to scholarship and strongly undermines copyright exemptions.

    I don't believe that really works in this situation, however, for the reasons ksmith states.

    I think of rarity or uniqueness as more preservation issues than copyright issues. Theses and dissertations are just protected by copyright as anything else, and I don't see why they should have additional privileges- especially since as scholarly works, they're meant to be shared and disseminated! ^_^

    If you were going to go strictly by those terms, you wouldn't be able to take advantage of the library exemptions for copying, either.
  • Yes, after thinking about our thesis statement a bit I really wonder why it's there, and where it originates! I'm going to do some digging now that I'm curious, and take a look at theses from other institutions that come through ILL. Being a long-time-ago MLS, I never had to write one, so I don't know anything about it from that end!
  • Thanks Kevin and Carlos. You've confirmed my thoughts, which is that the copyright element of the statement is both unenforceable and contrary to academic principles. Kevin, your point that the problem is basically about ethics is a good one. My inclination was to tell the librarian to sign the form, buy the dissertation, and if he felt like he should include the statement in the volume, to do so. For me, the benefit of broad access to the work outweighs any sense of obligation I may have to enforce someone else's rigid attempts to control it.

    I'm still curious about how other libraries deal with these forms, so Janet, I hope you'll report back with the results of your digging!
  • Coincidentally, this same issue just came through my door this afternoon. My institution has been presented with a form similar, but not identical, to the one Molly quotes by Cambridge University (which apparently does not play with British Library Thesis Service) in order to purchase a copy of a Cambridge dissertation.

    The Copyright Declaration that we got reads as follows:

    "I recognize that in accordance with the law of copyright no information derived from this dissertation or quotation from it may be published without full acknowledgment of the source being made nor any substantial extract from this dissertation published without the authors (sic) written consent"

    I am a little more comfortable with this language than that used by the Thesis Service, since it is at least an accurate statement of British copyright law. "Fair dealing" in the UK, unlike US fair use, does require attribution of the source. And "substantial extracts" would presumably be outside the scope of either fair use or fair dealing. So I have advised our acquisitions department to sign the declaration and to paste a copy of it inside the dissertation before it is put into circulation. As we have observed, the purchase form does not seem to anticipate library lending, but this seemed like a reasonable compromise to me. No borrower will be in privity of contract with Cambridge, of course, but the library (which will have such a relationship through its agent who signs the declaration) will have made a reasonable effort to communicate the restrictions to the borrower.

    I would be less likely to suggest that course of action in regard to the form Molly received, since it is not an accurate statement of the law that would actually apply to any borrower. But I am curious what others think; is this a reasonable way to deal with the situation, where the statement itself seems OK?
  • Still investigating this -- at OU, it seems to be a case of "we've just always done it this way." My query to the Graduate College was kicked back here to the library staff member who prepares the theses for binding! And she says she's been doing it that way for 20 years. Perhaps next I'll try UMI and see what they know...
  • Thanks for checking back in, Janet. I would guess, based on my previous interactions with UMI, that they have nothing to do with the policies of individual libraries, and probably won't have anything helpful to say. But I may be wrong, and I'll be interested to hear their response.
  • I've contacted our university's legal counsel and he'll get back to me after finals -- as he said, unless I'm flunking out or being denied tenure, I'm going to have to wait a few days! But initially he thinks it's something the library can and should change. More next week, I hope!

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