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Copyright Law: Fair Use

This guide provides an overview of materials available through the Hamilton County Law Library and online that are useful in researching the copyright status of a work and the law of copyright.

About this Guide

This guide surveys materials available at the Hamilton County Law Library and freely available online that are useful in registering a copyright, researching the copyright status of a work, and learning about the law of copyright.

DisclaimerHamilton County Law Library staff, as a service to its patrons, provides reference services and information, including these research guides. To protect the public interest, Ohio law requires that legal advice and services be rendered only by qualified attorneys who are subject to the guidelines of the courts. Library staff members do not interpret the law, provide legal advice, or explain court procedures. The information provided is not a substitute for legal advice from a licensed attorney.  None of our services shall be construed as giving legal advice.

Definition of Fair Use

The United States Copyright Office defines Fair Use as follows:

Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides the statutory framework for determining whether something is a fair use and identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use.  Section 107 calls for consideration of the following four factors in evaluating a question of fair use:

  • (1) Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes:  Courts look at how the party claiming fair use is using the copyrighted work, and are more likely to find that nonprofit educational and noncommercial uses are fair.  This does not mean, however, that all nonprofit education and noncommercial uses are fair and all commercial uses are not fair; instead, courts will balance the purpose and character of the use against the other factors below.  Additionally, “transformative” uses are more likely to be considered fair.  Transformative uses are those that add something new, with a further purpose or different character, and do not substitute for the original use of the work.
  • (2) Nature of the copyrighted work:  This factor analyzes the degree to which the work that was used relates to copyright’s purpose of encouraging creative expression. Thus, using a more creative or imaginative work (such as a novel, movie, or song) is less likely to support a claim of a fair use than using a factual work (such as a technical article or news item). In addition, use of an unpublished work is less likely to be considered fair.
  • (3) Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole:  Under this factor, courts look at both the quantity and quality of the copyrighted material that was used. If the use includes a large portion of the copyrighted work, fair use is less likely to be found; if the use employs only a small amount of copyrighted material, fair use is more likely. That said, some courts have found use of an entire work to be fair under certain circumstances. And in other contexts, using even a small amount of a copyrighted work was determined not to be fair because the selection was an important part—or the “heart”—of the work.
  • (4) Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work:  Here, courts review whether, and to what extent, the unlicensed use harms the existing or future market for the copyright owner’s original work. In assessing this factor, courts consider whether the use is hurting the current market for the original work (for example, by displacing sales of the original) and/or whether the use could cause substantial harm if it were to become widespread.

In addition to the above, other factors may also be considered by a court in weighing a fair use question, depending upon the circumstances. Courts evaluate fair use claims on a case-by-case basis, and the outcome of any given case depends on a fact-specific inquiry. This means that there is no formula to ensure that a predetermined percentage or amount of a work—or specific number of words, lines, pages, copies—may be used without permission.  

Resources Providing Guidance in Evaluating Fair Use

U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index

Fair use is a longstanding and vital aspect of American copyright law. The goal of the Index is to make the principles and application of fair use more accessible and understandable to the public by presenting a searchable database of court opinions, accessible by category and type of use (e.g., music, internet/digitization, parody). The Fair Use Index tracks a variety of judicial decisions to help both lawyers and non-lawyers better understand the types of uses courts have previously determined to be fair—or not fair. The decisions span multiple federal jurisdictions, including the U.S. Supreme Court, circuit courts of appeal, and district courts. Please note that while the Index incorporates a broad selection of cases, it does not include all judicial opinions on fair use. The Copyright Office will update and expand the Index periodically.

Measuring Fair Use:  The Four Factors

Stanford University Libraries hosts a copyright website that includes this page which analyzes the fair use exception and provides examples of how it has been applied.

Copyright Crash Course - Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials

This link connects to the Universitry of Texas' analysis of the Fair Use Exemption.

Copyright Exceptions - Fair Use

This link connects to Purdue's Fair Use analysis.

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic & Research Libraries

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) presents a clear and easy-to-use statement of fair and reasonable approaches to fair use developed by and for librarians who support academic inquiry and higher education. The Code was developed in partnership with the Center for Social Media and the Washington College of Law at American University. 

Subject Guide

Contact Us

The Law Library is open Courthouse hours, Monday-Friday, 8:00-4:00. 

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We cannot provide research by phone or email, except for governmental officials and subscribers.  Please come into the library for research guidance and self-help.

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On the web: http://lawlibrary.hamilton-co.org/

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