What Is Fair Use
Updated: May 2
Fair use is a doctrine in United States law that permits limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder. Fair use is one of the limitations to copyright intended to balance the interests of copyright holders with the public interest in the wider distribution and use of creative works by allowing as a defense to copyright infringement claims certain limited uses that might otherwise be considered infringement. Unlike "fair dealing" rights that exist in most countries with a British legal history, the fair use right is a general exception that applies to all different kinds of uses with all types of works and turns on a flexible proportionality test that examines the purpose of the use, the amount used, and the impact on the market of the original work.
The doctrine of "fair use" originated in the Anglo-American common law during the 18th and 19th centuries as a way of preventing copyright law from being too rigidly applied and "stifling the very creativity which [copyright] law is designed to foster." Though originally a common law doctrine, it was enshrined in statutory law when the U.S. Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued several major decisions clarifying and reaffirming the fair use doctrine since the 1980s, most recently in the 2021 decision Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.
Examples of fair use in United States copyright law include commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, and scholarship. Fair use provides for the legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work under a four-factor test.
The U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally characterized fair use as an affirmative defense, but in Lenz v. Universal Music Corp. (2015) (the "dancing baby" case), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that fair use was not merely a defense to an infringement claim, but was an expressly authorized right, and an exception to the exclusive rights granted to the author of a creative work by copyright law: "Fair use is therefore distinct from affirmative defenses where a use infringes a copyright, but there is no liability due to a valid excuse, e.g., misuse of a copyright."
Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 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:
the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
the nature of the copyrighted work;
the 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.
If you have any questions regarding whether or not your documentary or narrative project meets the standards necessary for what is called a fair use letter feel free to call or email us and we can assist you with a referral.