April 4, 2009

Fair use in the digital age

How does fair use work in an age of social media?

JD LasicaFair use — the tradition that individuals may make use of copyrighted works for a range of purposes that are legal — is enshrined in Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act. Other countries have their own versions of fair use.

Many people mistakenly believe fair use gives them broad, indiscriminate leeway to appropriate copyright holders’ works. Fair use is somewhat limited in scope. But Lawrence Lessig, the author and Harvard law professor, makes the important point that free use covers much more terrain than fair use. So does Peter Jaszi, another noted academic. Fair use is limited to carveouts, or exceptions granted to certain classes of individuals, in the Copyright Act. Free use covers longtime traditions like taping television shows on your VCR.

Fenwick-West, a prestigious intellectual property law firm in San Francisco, wrote the following fair use guidelines for Ourmedia.org members. The same guidelines apply to anyone who uploads works to any public website.

Fair use guidelines

The best way you can avoid infringement is by obtaining proper permission from the copyright or trademark owner before using it in your work, even if you only use a small part of his or her material. Simply crediting a copyright or trademark owner whenever you use his or her material is not a substitute for obtaining permission. If you do not obtain permission and you are not sure if your work falls within the fair use guidelines outlined below, consider consulting an attorney or avoid using the material altogether.

Cyberspace law differs by jurisdiction and is developing rapidly. A reasonable fair use policy seeks to reflect U.S. and international intellectual property laws, but copyright is a rapidly evolving arena.

Copyrights

A copyright protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression, such as published and unpublished written, visual, and audio works. Examples of copyrighted material may include music, films, television programs, and photographs. Copyright laws usually do not protect, among other things, ideas, procedures, discoveries, and works in the public domain (i.e., standard calendars).

Be mindful, however, that many things commonly thought to be in the public domain are not, so you need to be very careful to do a little research before assuming that something is in the public domain. For example, just because someone posts something online does not mean that he or she is allowing anyone to use it for any purpose. A copyrighted work does not need to say that it is copyrighted, or have the copyright symbol © on it. The copyright owner has the right to copy or permit others to copy his or her material.

Copyright infringement occurs whenever someone uses rights reserved just for the copyright owner without proper permission from the owner. You could be guilty of infringement if you improperly use another’s copyrighted material, even if that use is unintentional.

If you live outside the United States, be aware of the copyright laws governing your jurisdiction. Many countries have ratified international agreements and are members of organizations that seek to protect copyright owners.

Copyright ‘fair use’

The “fair use” of another’s copyright material means that, depending on your particular situation, you can sometimes use a part of another’s copyrighted material in your own work without permission from the owner. You may fairly use another’s copyrighted material provided that your work essentially transforms the copyrighted material into something original and creative, such as a parody, satire, or political statement.

It is not automatically fair to use another’s copyrighted material for a noncommercial, educational, or private purpose, or to exercise your First Amendment rights. It is usually fair use to use just enough of another’s copyrighted material that is necessary to communicate your ideas.

Examples of actions that may infringe others’ copyrights include the following: attempting to make money from another’s copyrighted material; completely duplicating another’s copyrighted material; creating a new work comprised mostly of another’s copyrighted material; and paraphrasing another’s copyrighted material without permission and attribution.

Trademarks

A trademark is a distinctive sign that identifies particular goods or services as those made or supplied by a person or entity. The owner of a trademark possesses the license to use the mark. Examples of trademarks include the bulls-eye symbol for Target, and word marks like Xerox and Macintosh.

Trademark infringement occurs whenever someone uses rights reserved just for the trademark owner without the owner’s permission. You could be guilty of infringement if you improperly use another’s trademark, even if that use is unintentional.

If you live outside the United States, be aware of the trademark laws governing your jurisdiction. Many countries have ratified international agreements that seek to protect trademark owners.

Trademark ‘fair use’

The “fair use” of another’s trademark means that, depending on your particular situation, you can sometimes use another’s trademark in your own work without permission from the trademark owner. You may fairly use another’s trademark inconspicuously in your own work to identify that product or service, while avoiding the risk of misattributing your work to the trademark owner. Fair use often permits “fair comment” of another’s trademark, such as comparing your product to another’s in an advertisement. A work that incorporates another’s trademark in a genuine parody or satire is often fair use, so long as it is not a disguised attempt to compete with another’s products or services.

Examples of actions that may be infringement include altering another’s trademark or the product or service associated with it, or directly or indirectly making false claims about the trademark or product or service with that it is associated.

Copyright Act

Here is the wording of the U.S. Copyright Act with respect to fair use:

Sec. 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 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–

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a 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; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Additional resources

U.S. Copyright Office on fair use: Can I use someone else’s work? Can someone else use mine? (FAQ)

Socialbrite’s law resources

Center for Social Media’s Fair Use Project

Stanford University: Copyright and fair use

Documentary filmmakers’ statement of best practices in fair use

Podcasting legal guide

Wikipedia on fair use

Wikipedia on copyright

University of Cincinnati Libraries: Using Images FAQs

Nolo law center: When Copying Is Okay: The “Fair Use” Rule

Stanford University Library: Summaries of Fair Use Cases

Creative Commons on remixing

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