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Intellectual Property (copyright & plagiarism): Fair Use

So just what is fair use?

Under the “fair use” rule of copyright law, someone may use part of another author’s work without asking permission. Fair use is intended to support teaching, research, and scholarship, and others' individual creativity.  However, “fair use” is not defined by statute and is therefore wide open to interpretation. 

In using part of someone else's work, invoking fair use becomes a good-faith assertion on your part. How much of someone else's work is really only "fair"  when a judge says it is in a legal decision.  You don't want to be sued for infringement just to find out for sure your use was legally fair, so be careful how you use others' work. Keep in mind that "educational use" alone does not make use of a work fair. It is always important to analyze how you are going use a particular work against the following four factors of fair use.  Here is what the law says:

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 section, 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 for 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.
Source:   17 U.S.C.A. § 107 "Limitations on Exclusive Rights"


U.S. Copyright Office provides a fact sheet

University of Texas provides a summary of Fair Use.

Fair Use Checklists

These charts provide helpful information for deciding if you are using copyrighted material fairly

Five books you should know

Fair Use

Fair use is a doctrine of US copyright law that allows limited use of copyrighted works without seeking permission. Fair use is typically  invoked for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. 

The law specifies a "four-factor test" to determine if a use is fair. You can do the same:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work (factual v. creative)
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. and 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 in Classrooms

Reality Check

See if your intended use parallels these real-life scenarios created by

Bern Dibner Library (NYU Polytechnic)

A Fair(y) Use Tale

"Professor Eric Faden of Bucknell University created this humorous, yet informative, review of copyright principles delivered through the words of the very folks we can thank for nearly endless copyright terms."  From Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society.

Recommended Guidelines

Guidelines are not hard rules, they just help you decide how you might use material without permission. 

Guidelines for Distributing Photocopies

  • Making digital or photocopies does not substitute for buying books or journals
  • Provide a copyright notice on the first page of the material copied. The American Library Association recommends using "Notice: This material is subject to the copyright law of the United States."
  • Provide only one copy per student which becomes the property of the student.
  • Copying the works for subsequent semesters requires copyright permission.
  • Do not charge the students beyond the cost of making the photocopy.

Guidelines for Using Materials Found on the Internet

  • Look on a Web page to see if it includes permission information. if so, follow them carefully!
  • Always credit the source of your information (by URL, date)
  • Rather than copy material from an Internet site, link to the site--better yet, ask permission (and if you receive permission to use the material keep a hard copy of your request and the response)

Guidelines for Using Multi-Media

Multimedia works are created by combining copyrighted media elements such as motion media, music, other sounds, graphics, and text. It is recommended that you use only small portions of other people's works.

What is considered a small portion? (these amounts are not rules for determining fair use)

  • Motion media: Up to 10% or three minutes, whichever is less.
  • Text: Up to 10% or 1,000 words, whichever is less (the limits on poetry are more restrictive)
  • Music: Up to 10% of an individual copyrighted musical composition, or up to 10% of a copyrighted musical composition embodied on a sound recording. However, no more than 30 seconds may be used without gaining permission from the copyright owner or licensing collective.
  • Illustrations and photos: Under the guidelines, "a photograph or illustration may be used in its entirety, but no more than five images by one artist or photographer may be incorporated into any one multimedia program. From a published collective work, not more than 10% or 15 images, whichever is less, may be used."
  • Numerical Data Sets: Up to 10% or 2,5000 fields or cell entries, whichever is less.

The following guidelines allow you to use multimedia without permission of lawfully acquired copyrighted works.

  • You may incorporate portions of copyrighted works when creating your own multimedia projects for educational or instructional (not commercial) purposes but your work cannot be shown or disseminated outside of class
    • Students may incorporate "portions" of copyrighted materials for a project in a specific course
    • Students may display their own projects, use them in their portfolio, use the project for a job interview or as supporting materials in an application for school
    • Faculty may use their projects for class assignments, curriculum materials, remote instruction, for conferences, presentations, or workshops, or for their professional portfolio
  • Give attribution to the original source of all copyrighted material used
  • Place a copyright notice on the opening screen of the multimedia program and accompanying print material that "certain materials are included under fair use exemption of the U.S. Copyright Law...and are restricted from further use."
  • Fair use of the copyrighted materials expires at the end of two years. To use the project again you need to obtain permission.

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media

The Center for Social Media in the School of Communication at American University, the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property in American University Washington College of Law, and the Media Education Lab of Temple University are conducting a project 2007-2009 to clarify fair use in media education, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This project will help media literacy educators understand their rights under the doctrine of fair use in order to help them more effectively use media as an essential part of their teaching.