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Copyright: Fair Use

Fair Use Defined

Copyright has limitations. Fair Use is an important exception in copyright law that allows users, under certain conditions, to freely use copyrighted works without the copyright owner's permission and without paying any fee.

Under this exception, a use is generally considered fair if it is beneficial to society without causing economic harm to the copyright owner. 

Types of uses that the courts have historically found to be Fair Use include:  

  • criticism, such as quoting material in a review or critique
  • news reporting
  • teaching, such as making multiple copies of a work for classroom use
  • scholarship and research
  • parody

The Four Factor Test

There are four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature (i.e. the user stands to profit financially from it) or is for nonprofit, educational purposes

   Tip: Nonprofit, educational, personal uses support a determination of fair use. Commercial uses generally require permission from the rights holder.

2. The nature of the copyrighted work being used

   Tip: Factual, published works tip the balance in favor of fair use. Unpublished, imaginative works are more likely to require permission from the rights holder.

3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole

   Tip: Use no more of the work than needed to achieve your purpose. In general terms, this could mean up to 10% of a short work or a single article or chapter from a longer work. In addition, you are more likely to need the rights holder's permission if you use the "heart of the work."

4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

   Tip: If your work would compete with (take away sales from) the original, it is unlikely to be considered a fair use and you will need to obtain permission. If your use is transformative, meaning it adds value to and repurposes the work for a different audience, it is more likely to be deemed a fair use.

The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

Source: U.S. Copyright Office

Fair Use or Not?

The distinction between fair use and infringement is not always clear. 

However, you can use these online tools to work through the Four Factors of Fair Use: 

One Final Note

It's always smart (not to mention ethical) to act in good faith when utilizing protected works under the Fair Use Doctrine.

How do you do this? 

  • include attribution
  • include copyright notice, if known
  • include proper citation
  • legally acquire the material