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Copyright and Fair Use for Students and Educators

About what constitutes fair, educational use of copyrighted materials for students doing research and other course work

Subject Guide

Fair Use in 100 Words + 1 Graphic

Fair Use is a broad exception inside of copyright law that allows otherwise copyrighted works to be used in certain ways. The smaller the amount, the more transformative the use, the better suited the source material to the use, and the lesser the impact the use has on the source: the fairer the use.

Fair use in four parts

What are some reasons to take advantage of fair use? How about teaching, critiquing, commenting, parodying, learning, and researching? Analyzing, comparing, and synthesizing? Seeing things in different lights, discussing, and developing a more hands on relationship with the data?

Fair use for Students

What is Fair Use?

Fair use is almost exactly what it sounds like. It is the ability of others to make use of copyrighted work in a fair manner. Fair both to the original creator (e.g., they don't have to worry about someone randomly using their work for profit) and to the person using the original work (i.e. they don't have to fill out forms in triplicate just to quote an article). Keep in mind, though, in the online circular Fair Use, the Copyright Office notes: "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." While specific guidelines, to a degree, have been laid down for educators making handouts and such for a classroom (and these will be touched upon, later), most use relies on the judgement of four watchwords:

  • Purpose (i.e. Why are you using the copyrighted work?)
  • Nature of Work (i.e. What kind of work is copyrighted?)
  • Brevity (i.e. How much are you copying?)
  • Effect (i.e. What impact would your use have on the original work?)

Why is Fair Use Important to Students and Educators?

Students and educators have to quote and sample other works for assignments, research projects, papers, conference presentations, lectures, and in discussion. In other words, fair use means a lot to the process of learning, teaching, and exploring topics. Think of the number of times you have to use someone else's copyrighted work in order to complete just one ten page paper or one "make a website about your favorite hobby" assignment. Realizing this, the US Copyright Office specifies "for nonprofit educational purposes" as a consideration for fair use [see other quote to the right of this]. If a student had to contact every copyright holder to get permission to do an assignment, or if a professor had to pay a fee in order to include a graphic in a Powerpoint presentation, the ability to learn and research and study and teach would be greatly, and negatively, impacted.

This means that educational fair use is not only an important, but vital, right. It is not absolute, though, and the next section will touch upon some of the dos and don'ts associated.

Note: attribution is not enough to waive aside copyright infringement. That's more or less a direct quote from the same "Fair Use" document linked to above: "Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission." If you are going behind a short quote/paraphrase, go ahead and try to get permission.

Examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use

The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use:

quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.

[above paragraph quoted in full from Fair Use, for purposes of illustration and example]

Educational Fair Use on the Web

The Sort of Things *NOT* Covered by Fair Use

  • It is NOT OK to reproduce a book in whole, or even significant chunks of it (multiple chapters, entire sections, etc) to hand out to your class for reading.
  • It is NOT OK to show entire episodes of a tv show without some sort of permission being given, even if this is a show broadcast through network TV and you've merely recorded it and you are "time-shifting" it.
  • It is NOT OK to illegally download a movie "for research purposes".
  • It is NOT OK to copy all the graphs and illustrations from a book and then turn that into a visual display.

  • It is not there to allow you to otherwise illegally infringe upon a creator's rights with a blanket statement about it being "for education" or having some vague connection to research. "I swear, Dr. Johnson, illegally downloading these videogames allowed me to see first hand how violent they are!" While a cracking excuse, it's not fair use.