VCU Libraries

Research Guides

Copyright for Graduate Students

What is Fair Use?

Fair use is a part of copyright law that recognizes certain uses of copyrighted works benefit society without causing undue harm to copyright holders and therefore do not require permission from the copyright holder. 

Some of the examples listed as fair use in copyright law include criticism, commentary, parody, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. However, not all uses for these purposes will automatically be fair.

Fair use is purposefully vague so that it can remain flexible as technologies and types of uses change over time. However, its vagueness can make it more difficult to decide when your use is or is not fair. In order to decide if a use is fair, you have to analyze the particular details of your situation and proposed use

Everyone is free to exercise the right to make a fair use of a copyrighted work, but copyright owners are also free to disagree with a user's fair use analysis and to subsequently sue for copyright infringement. That means that those who want to exercise their fair use right will need to do so with careful thought and will need to 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 making a fair use decision, 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 particular 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 Resources

Copyright and Your Dissertation or Thesis: Ownership, Fair Use, and Your Rights and Responsibilities by Kenneth Crews is a must read resource for graduate students as they prepare their thesis or dissertation. In it, you will find information about fair use as it specifically applies to theses and dissertations, including a more detailed breakdown of the four factors and examples of fair uses.

As you consider your uses of others' works, you may also find it helpful to refer to various statements of best practices that describe situations considered to be fair use of copyrighted works by various scholarly communities. While a statement of best practices might not exist for your specific discipline, these statements may help guide your thinking, as there are many scholarly uses that are considered fair across disciplines.

You might also find these tools helpful when you are analyzing your proposed use:

Fair Use Infographics from the Association of Research Libraries