Copyright and Fair Use

copy_machine1One of the most misunderstood aspects of copyright law is the concept of “fair use.” Some people believe that fair use allows anyone to use up to a certain number of words from a copyrighted work (such as 120) or not more than a percentage (such as 10%) of the entire work. However, the law contains no such provision.

Although the law does not specify exactly what constitutes fair use, the doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years and is codified in section 107 of the copyright law. Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered “fair,” such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The distinction between “fair use” and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Giving credit by acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

Some of the activities that courts have regarded as fair use include:

  • quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment;
  • quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations;
  • use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied;
  • summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report;
  • reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy;
  • reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson;
  • reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports;
  • incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.

Because fair use is not clearly defined, the prudent course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material.

Cathy Stucker is the publisher of Discover how to turn your book into streams of passive income and get a free one-hour audio about profiting from your content at