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Fair Use

What is Fair Use?

The current copyright law, while giving the owner of the copyright the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute the work, has one exception to these exclusive rights: the "fair use exception." The purpose of the fair use exemption was created to allow students, scholars, and critics the right to reference a copyrighted work in their own scholarship, teaching, and critiques without fear of litigation.

The fair use exception permits the reproduction of portions of copyrighted works without the copyright owner's permission, but only under very limited circumstances. The Fair Use Doctrine was added to the Copyright Act of 1976 and  was based on a history of judicial decisions that recognized that unauthorized use of copyrighted materials were "fair uses." Unfortunately, Section 107 is not specific, and fair use should be examined on a case by case basis.

While there is no one right answer as to what constitutes "fair use," the copyright law lists four factors that are meant to guide you in using copyrighted materials. These four factors are considered in all fair use evaluations and you should make an effort to comply with these factors:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of 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
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work


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.