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Copyright & Multimedia: Can I Claim Fair Use?

Under the fair use doctrine, you may use limited portions of copyrighted material in your work without the permission of the copyright owner. Before using media under the fair use doctrine, however, you will need to evaluate whether your use qualifies as fair. The fair use determination will depend on how much of the copyrighted work you are using and how you are using it. Fair use analysis is subjective and fact specific. To determine whether a particular use if fair, the following four factors must be weighed and balanced:

  1. The purpose and character of your use
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion taken
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market


Evaluating the Four Factors

While academic and educational uses strengthen a fair use argument, there are limits to how much of a copyrighted work can be used under the fair use doctrine. Unfortunately, the law and subsequent court cases do not provide a lot of guidance on which uses are fair and which are infringing. There is no formula, percentage, or amount of a work that is automatically deemed to be fair use. Fair use determinations are made by evaluating what type of work you are using, how much of it you are using, and how you are using it. Fair use analysis must be done on a case-by-case basis and is subjective and fact specific. To determine whether a use is fair or not, all of the factors must be evaluated, although the relative importance of individual factors may vary from case to case. Rights holders and users of copyrighted materials do not always agree on whether a use is fair, so conflicts can arise, and a particular use and could be challenged by the copyright holder.

Read more about the fair use factors.

Guidance for Evaluating Fair Use

Because there is so little guidance in the Copyright Act and case law on how to weigh and balance the four fair use factors, several organizations have created documents to assist faculty, students, and others in making fair use determinations for multimedia materials. It is important to note that none of these documents have the force of law and that rights holders may disagree with the principles set out in documents listed below.

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video
“This document is a code of best practices that helps creators, online providers, copyright holders, and others interested in the making of online video interpret the copyright doctrine of fair use. Fair use is the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment under some circumstances” (Center for Social Media, 2008).

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts
"This Code of Best Practices provides visual-arts professionals with a set of principles addressing best practices in the fair use of copyrighted materials. It describes how fair use can be invoked and implemented when using copyrighted materials in scholarship, teaching, museums, archives, and in the creation of art." (College Art Association, 2015).

Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research, and Study, (Visual Resources Association, 2011).

Policy on the Use of ‘Thumbnail’ Digital Images in Museum Online Initiatives, (Association of Art Museum Directors, 2011).

Tools for Evaluating Fair Use

While academic and educational uses strengthen a fair use argument, there are limits to how much of a copyrighted work can be used under the fair use doctrine. In every case, all four factors must be analyzed. Try some of these resources to evaluate that you are using copyrighted materials "fairly":


Introduction  What Can I Use? /  Can I Claim Fair Use?
Video  /  Audio  /  Images