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Introduction to Copyright

Fair Use is All Around

Fair use is a major exception outlined in U.S. Copyright Law that allows for limited uses of copyrighted materials without explicit permission from copyright owners. Such uses include "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research."

Whether or not we know it, we are constantly relying on fair use in our daily lives, at home, school, and work. To help demonstrate this, the Association of Research Libraries has commissioned helpful infographics such as "Fair Use Fundamentals" and "Fair Use in a Day in the Life of a College Student."

The Four Factors

Fair use is flexible and broad, and the law does not offer any hard and fast rules to determine whether or not a given use is "fair." However, it does outline four factors as guideposts to help all of us evaluate the use of copyrighted materials on a case-by-case basis:

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.

The first factor explores why and to what purpose the copyrighted work is being used. Does it "transform" the work by using it in a new context or for a new purpose other than the one for which it was originally created? Is it being used to meet scholarly or educational goals? Noncommercial uses tend to weigh in favor of fair use, while commercial uses of copyright protected content will usually go against fair use.

2. The nature of the copyrighted work.

Works that have already been published or publicly distributed are usually better candidates for fair use, as copyright holders have already exercised their exclusive right to make their works available. Also, remember that facts themselves cannot be copyrighted, so uses of heavily factual works might be considered fairer than uses of heavily creative works.

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

Some fair use guidelines try to recommend specific portions or percentages of a work that count as fair; however, it is important to remember that the law does not offer any absolute lower or upper limits. In general, using a smaller proportion of a work will bolster the argument for fair use, but there are times when the use of a larger portion or even an entire work is appropriate to the intended purpose.

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

Will your use of a copyrighted work deprive the rights holder of income or undermine sales of that work? Especially if it is feasible to purchase the work or to pay a copyright holder for its use, you should carefully consider whether the other three factors weigh in favor of fair use.

Remember that your use of copyrighted material may be fair even in cases where one or more of these factors leans against fair use if the other factors strongly favor it. The law makes each of us responsible for evaluating our own uses of copyrighted works.

Fair Use Tools & Guides