Fair Use Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Fair Use, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Fair Use?

n. The right to utilize a copyrighted material without compensating the author or fear of being sued for copyright infringement. Copy machines can be used to copy pages of texts, charts, act., without infringing the copyright if used in classrooms or as advice to employees. For example: Professor Elmer Smedley makes 100 copies of a photograph from Time magazine of starving Somalians to illustrate to his students the deprivations in Africa (which is fair use), but then Smedley publishes a book Africa on the Brink, and uses the photograph in a chapter on starvation (not fair use), and is responsible to the photographer for a royalty.

History and Meaning of Fair Use

Fair use is a doctrine that allows the limited use of copyrighted material without asking permission from the rights holder or paying royalties. This legal concept was developed in the United States as part of copyright law, and its purpose is to balance the interests of copyright owners and the public's interest in accessing and using works. In general, fair use is determined by considering four factors: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and the effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Examples of Fair Use

  • A movie critic quotes a few lines of dialogue from a movie in his review.
  • A teacher plays a short clip from a documentary in her classroom to illustrate a point.
  • A news report shows a photograph of a politician that was taken by a professional photographer but is used in a news story about the politician's policy.
  • A comedian makes a parody of a popular song.

Legal Terms Similar to Fair Use

  • Creative Commons: A nonprofit organization that provides free licenses to creators to make their works available to the public while still retaining some rights.
  • Public Domain: Works that are not protected by copyright law because their intellectual property rights have expired or were never owned by anyone.
  • Transformative Use: Uses of copyrighted material that add new meaning, expression, or value, and are therefore more likely to be considered fair use.
  • Permission to Use: When a copyright owner grants permission to someone else to use their work in a specific way in exchange for payment, attribution, or other conditions.