Fair use

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Fair use is a doctrine in United States copyright law, that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders.[1]

Legal aspects

From the U.S. Copyright Office:

One of the rights accorded to the owner of copyright is the right to reproduce or to authorize others to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords. This right is subject to certain limitations found in sections 107 through 118 of the copyright law (title 17, U. S. Code). One of the more important limitations is the doctrine 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.

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.

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."

Copyright protects the particular way authors have expressed themselves. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work.

The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. The Copyright Office cannot give this permission.

When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of fair use would clearly apply to the situation. The Copyright Office can neither determine if a certain use may be considered fair nor advise on possible copyright violations. If there is any doubt, it is advisable to consult an attorney.[1]


Exceptions to copyright protection under U.S. and international law, generally classified under the broad heading of Fair Use, are vital to many industries. A study of the Computer & Communications Industry Association released in September, 2007, found that companies benefiting from fair use generate substantial revenue, employ millions of workers, and, in 2006, represented one-sixth of total U.S. GDP.

Industries that depend on or benefit from fair use include:

  • manufacturers of consumer devices that allow individual copying of copyrighted programming
  • educational institutions
  • software developers and
  • internet search and web hosting providers.

Fair use dependent industries generated $3.5 trillion dollars in 2002 in revenues and $4.5 trillion in 2006. Total value added was an estimated $1.7 trillion in 2002 and $2.2 trillion (more than eighteen percent of US GDP). Fair use industries also grew at a faster pace than the overall economy. In percentage terms, the most significant growth occurred in electronic shopping, audio and video equipment manufacturing, Internet publishing and broadcasting, Internet service providers and web search portals, and other information services.

Employment related to fair use was 16.9 million in 2002 and increased to 17.3 million in 2006. In 2002, employment in fair use industries accounted for somewhat less than 13 percent of total non-farm employment in the United States. That is, about one out of every eight workers in the United States was employed in an industry that benefited from the protection afforded by fair use. While employment levels have been relatively stable, the payrolls of fair use industries have been expanding, increasing from $909 billion in 2002 to $1.2 trillion in 2006, an increase of 31 percent.[2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "U.S. Copyright Office - Fair Use", U.S. Copyright Office, FL-102, Reviewed November 2009. Referenced 2011-10-12.
  2. Thomas Rogers, Andrew Szamosszegi. "Fair Use in the U.S. Economy" (pdf), Computer & Communications Industry Association, September, 2007. The study has considered not only the core fair use industries, but also the suppliers of goods and services to the fair use core and major users. Referenced 2011-10-12.