Fair use

Fair use is the U.S. legal doctrine that permits brief excerpts of copyrighted material, under certain circumstances, to be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder. Unlike specific exceptions to the rights of copyright owners, fair use is a flexible standard. Therefore, each application of fair use must be examined on a case-by-case basis.

Determining fair use

A fair use analysis examines the proposed usage and asks why, what, how much, and what economic effects may result. The core questions are 1) are you doing something new or different (“transformative”) with the copyrighted material, and 2) are you providing a substitute for the work as originally offered?

Whether an intended use is covered by the fair use provision is determined by a four-factor analysis :

  1. Purpose or character of use,
  2. Nature of the work being used,
  3. Amount and substantiality of the use,
  4. Effect on the market for the work being used.

Use our fair use checklist to help determine if your specific use is covered. If your use is not favored under fair use, it may be allowable under other exceptions (such as the face-to-face teaching exception) to U.S. Copyright law. If not, you must get permission from the copyright holder.

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Best practices

The Center for Media & Social Impact at American University has worked with a number of communities and attorneys to develop best practices in fair use for a number of specific areas such as documentary film makers, journalism, and the visual arts.

Contact us

If you need help, contact our copyright librarian Ellen Dubinsky.