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Fair Use

Fair use is a provision of U.S. copyright law that lets you use parts of works created by others in your work. Sometimes you must obtain permission from the authors/owners of an original work to use parts of it. 

The concept of fair use sounds vague when discussed in the abstract. Its meaning depends on the particular facts of an individual situation. The law does not clearly distinguish which uses are fair and which are not. 

The fair use legal doctrine allows limited reproduction of copyrighted works for educational and research purposes. The relevant portion of the copyright statute says that the “fair use” of a copyrighted work, including reproduction “for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research” is not a copyright infringement. 

Measuring Fair Use

The law lists four factors to evaluate in determining whether a particular use of a copyrighted work is permissible fair use rather than an infringement of the copyright.

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether it is of a commercial nature or 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
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

Although all factors are considered, the last one is the most important in determining whether a particular use is fair. 

  • When you could reasonably purchase or license a work from the copyright holder in the format desired at a fair market price, copying all or a significant portion of that work instead of purchasing or licensing a sufficient number of authorized copies would be unfair. 
  • When only a small portion of the work is copied and the work would not be used if the purchase and licensing of a sufficient number of authorized copies was required, a court would be more likely to determine the intended use is fair.

However, there is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Moreover, acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission from the copyright owner. 

Obtaining Permission

You can request permission from an author or publisher using our sample letter below.

Visit the U.S. Copyright Office website for current information about copyright and fair use. Search for registered works and documents from January 1, 1978, to the present using the Copyright Public Records Catalog link on the main page. A fee-based service to conduct the search and produce a findings report is also available through the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress.

Alternatively, you may contact the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), a pay-per-use service that obtains copyright permissions for you. 

General Resources on Fair Use and Copyright

GW Resources