Current Fair Use Policy

July 29th, 2010 by Brian Leave a reply »

One of the issues that repeatedly gets brought up by librarians is the concept of “fair use” with regards to copyright.

I wrote this in July of 2010, so it may have changed since then, but here’s a link to the government’s copyright website and the specific page about fair use.

Here’s a general outline of fair use:

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:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of 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
  4. 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.

Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

Those are pretty general guidelines. There are principles for how much you can cite, but those are principles that can be challenged in court. In HARPER & ROW v. NATION ENTERPRISES, 471 U.S. 539 (1985), the publisher of a Gerald Ford biography challenged a magazine for publishing 400 words verbatim from the book in their 1,250 word magazine article. 68% of the words in the article were new. How many words can you use? The bigger question is if the article in the magazine was a review or if its intended purpose was to present Gerald Ford’s life.

With regards to how many words can be used, here’s a quote from the government site:

There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on all the circumstances.

That being said, many institutions have great policies to stay safe with copyright. Check out the University of Maryland’s explanation of fair use policy.

Important links:
Circular 21 from the US Copyright Office [PDF]
The Copyright Office’s FAQ on Fair Use
Section 107 of the Copyright Code


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