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Copyright Resource Center

Learn the main topics associated with copyright and ethical reuse of information and copyrighted materials.

What is Fair Use

The fair use doctrine is recognized under U.S. copyright law and allows certain uses of copyright protected material without first obtaining permission from the copyright holder. It is intended to serve the public good by allowing use of copyright protected materials for comedy, parody, news reporting, research and education. However, it is important to remember that not every use in an academic setting is automatically considered a fair use.

Perfect safety and absolute certainty are extremely rare in copyright law, as in many areas of law, and of life. Rather than sit idle until risk is reduced to zero, institutions often employ “risk management,” a healthy approach to policy making that seeks to enable important projects to go forward despite inevitable uncertainty by identifying possible risks (legal and otherwise) and reducing them to acceptable levels. -- ARL Code of Best Practice for Academic and Research Libraries, p. 10

The Four Factors

There are four specific factors which must be taken into account anytime one is intends to defend any particular action as a "fair use."  In the event a copyright infringement suit is brought against you, these are the four factors that a copyright judge would assess to determine if the validity of the complaint.

  1. What is the character or purpose of the use? If the use is for a nonprofit educational use as opposed to a commercial purpose, it is more likely to be considered fair use.
  2. What is the nature of the work to be used? If it is a fact based work developed for research or scholarly use as opposed to a creative work created for commercial purposes, it is more likely to be considered fair use.
  3. How much of the work will be used? The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the work as a whole must be considered. This refers to both the amount, length, and duration of the use, as well as the "heart" of the work.  Generally, the smaller the amount used, the more likely it favors fair use.  Obviously, determining what constitutes the "heart" of a work is much more subjective, but I would caution against disregarding this concern on that basis. 
  4. What effect would the use have on the market for or the value of the copyrighted work? In order to favor fair use, the use should have little or no effect on the creator’s ability to make money from the work.

The attached Fair Use Checklist has been prepared to aid you in thinking through your own proposed use(s) and making a determination of how likely (or unlikely) such uses meet the legal standard of being "fair."

Obligation to Make "Good Faith" Effort

A thoughtful analysis of these factors in relation to the desired use is needed in order to make a “good faith” determination of fair use.

There are significant penalties that can be imposed for copyright infringement.

Liability may be reduced in cases of nonprofit educational use if it can be established that an evaluation of these four factors resulted in a reasonable belief that the use was fair.