VCU Libraries

Research Guides

Copyright for Faculty

What is Fair Use?

United States copyright law recognizes that there are certain uses of copyrighted works that benefit society without causing undue harm to copyright holders. These kinds of uses are allowed under the doctrine of fair use, which means they do not require permission from the copyright holder. 

Some examples of fair use listed in copyright law include criticism, commentary, parody, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. However, not all uses made for these purposes will automatically be fair. Instead, copyright law provides a framework to determine what uses should be considered fair. This means that fair use must always be considered on a case by case basis.

The fair use framework is purposefully vague so that it can remain flexible as technologies and types of uses change over time. However, this can make it more difficult to decide whether or not your use falls under fair use. In order to make this decision, you must analyze the particular details of your situation and proposed use.

Everyone is free to make fair uses of copyrighted works, but copyright owners can disagree on what qualifies as fair use and assert that uses are copyright infringement. This means that those who want to exercise their fair use right should consider their use under the framework provided by copyright law and weigh the risks involved in certain uses. 

For examples of cases that courts have decided as either fair use or not fair use (copyright infringement), see:

Fair Use Analysis

Copyright law lists four factors that must be considered when performing a fair use analysis, although others can be considered. These factors are:

  1. The purpose and character of the intended use, including whether the use if for commercial or for non-profit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work being used
  3. The amount and substantiality of the work that is used in relation to the work as a whole
  4. The effect on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

Another factor that has emerged as a key consideration in recent copyright case law is transformative use. A use of a copyrighted work may be considered transformative if it uses the copyrighted work in a completely new way or with a new purpose that the original work's creator never intended and it does not merely supersede the use of the original work. A transformative use of a copyrighted work can help weigh in favor of fair use.

Fair Use Infographics from the Association of Research Libraries