News

Can I use a figure of a patent in my PhD thesis?

Published on
February 17, 2021

The Copyright Information Point (CIP) receives many interesting questions that could easily be on an exam about Dutch Copyright Law. In the current and coming WUR Library Newsletters, we will highlight some questions because these questions are too interesting to keep to ourselves. Today's question is about copyright on patent applications and specifically about (re)using a figure from a patent.

The question

“I want to use a figure from a patent […] in my PhD thesis. Currently, I merely cite the patent, but should I contact/ask permission to (re)use this figure?”.

The CIP's answer

To find the answer, we need to address the following three questions:

  1. Is the patent (including its figure) a work?
    Copyright only protects works that show some level of ‘creativity’. This is a low threshold, and, generally all works where creative choices are made (e.g. in the choice of words and their order) are subject to copyright protection. We consider a patent creative enough to be a work and thus to be copyright protected.
  2. Who owns the copyright?
    This particular patent was published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), without mentioning a specific author. Since no author was mentioned in the patent and no copyright statement was included, we must assume that, for the application of Dutch copyright law, USPTO owns the copyright to the patent, according to Article 8 of the Dutch Copyright Act.
  3. Does using a figure of the patent in a thesis result in copyright infringement?
    Under Article 15b of the Dutch Copyright Act, anybody is free to re-use works of governments and public bodies that have not explicitly reserved their rights. Since the USPTO falls under the definition of a public power (pursuant to U.S. law) and no reservation was included in the patent, re-using the images from the patent is not considered copyright infringement.

In this case, the researcher is allowed to use a figure from this patent in their dissertation without having to ask permission or without having to rely on the citation right.

But, when reusing other people’s work or any citation, do not forget to cite and reference your sources when you do. This is not mandatory by copyright law, but it is required to prevent plagiarism.

Side note: re-using figures from others

If you want to re-use a figure you found on the internet, in a published article or in a book, the answer would probably be different. The figure is still a work, but in most cases the copyright owner is the author or the publisher and not a public power, like the US Patent Office or the Dutch government. Moreover, copyright is probably always reserved by an author or a publisher. Under those circumstances, Article 15b is not applicable. 

However, based on Article 15a, you have the right to cite:

  • The figure must be published;
  • The source of the figure must be cited and referenced correctly in your text;
  • The figure must add something to your work (e.g. you need the figure to explain something or to make a point).

When these three conditions are fulfilled, you are allowed to use a figure from the internet, an article or a book in your work.

If you want to use the figure for decorative purposes, you cannot rely on the Article 15a. You need to ask permission of the copyright owner. Using the figure without permission in this case is considered copyright infringement, even if you cite and reference it correctly.

If you have any question about copyright law, please feel free to email copyright@wur.nl. Don't worry! We will only write about your question with your permission.