Fair use is an exception to the rights of copyright holders which allow the public to make limited uses of copyrighted works. The statute can be defined a limited right to use copyrighted works without the copyright holder's consent, usually under confined circumstances, for purposes such as education, research, news reporting, criticism, and commentary. Due to the nature of these specific pursuits, fair use is a legal incentive for the advancement of knowledge and the communication of ideas. However, fair use does not allow all uses. This section of the guide explains the fair use statute, the meaning, and limitations.
Fair use is the most important exception to the rights of copyright holders in terms of education and research purposes. Fair use is what allows researchers and academics to quote one another's work in their own work, advancing knowledge. Fair use is flexible and adaptable to many unpredictable situations that can occur in education and academia. Fair use can take on new meanings for each set of circumstances. The flexibility of the law makes the statute confusing and it can be difficult to apply, but the flexibility is one of the prized aspects of the law. Congress deliberately made the fair use statute flexible with no exact parameters, which allows fair use to be applied to each new use of copyrighted works.
Rather than define exact parameters, the fair use statute has four factors that are used more as guides. Section 107 of the US Copyright Act designates the four factors to be used to evaluate and balance in a fair use analysis.
17 US Code 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use
Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that sections, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include --
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.
Fair use is a balancing test. All four factors need to be evaluated and apply to a use, but not all of them need to be satisfied in order for a use to be fair. The question is whether a use overall leans in favor of or against fair use.
Fair use is highly fact-sensitive. Each situation has its own facts, the meaning and application of the factors will depend on the facts in each use. Anytime a situation is new or changed, the factors need to be evaluated.
Don't reach hasty conclusions. Fair use requires all four factors to be evaluated. Just because the work is to be used for education or scholarly objectives does not necessarily mean that the use is fair.
If the use is not "fair," don't forget the other statutory exceptions to the rights of copyright holders. Fair use and other copyright exceptions operate independently of one another. Compliance with only one exception makes a use lawful.
If the use is not within any exception, permission from the copyright holder is an option. Unless plans are changed to use another work, the only option may be to seek permission. Introduction to the Permissions Process: https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/introduction/
Fair use is only relevant if the work is protected by copyright. A work may very well be in the public domain, in which case copyright and fair use do not apply.
The Fair Use Statute was given deliberate flexibility by Congress which can be frustrating or freeing, depending on the situation. Some have found the flexibility complex because there is no absolute amount one can use in order to be "fair." Many have created or adopted the use of "guidelines" in order to play fair; the problem, however, is that none of the guidelines are legal. Thus, users should base their decision on the four factors, rather than any guidelines. The law's flexibility is important in enabling fair use to promote academic progress and scholarship generally. Accepting the flexibility allows important protections for educators. Educators should act in good faith, by learning the law and applying it. The only way to apply the law is to work with the four factors of the statute. Resources listed on this page include the following: help identifying if a use of a work protected by copyright is fair, more information on copyright and fair use, resources that are free to use such as works in the public domain or licensed with a creative commons license.
Best practices and steps to remember when using works:
Caveat: If there is a contract or license governing use of material, contract law trumps copyright law. Follow the restrictions of the license when using material from a licensed product like a library database.
This guide was created using many resources, many of them are linked throughout the guide. This guide was also built using information from: Crews, K. D. (2012). Copyright law for librarians and educators. Chicago: American Library Association.