US Copyright Office
US Copyright Law and the Fair Use Doctrine
What is "fair use"?
Fair use is an exception to the exclusive protection of copyright under American law. It permits certain limited uses without permission from the author or owner. Depending on the circumstances, copying may be considered "fair" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research. To determine whether a specific use under one of these categories is "fair," courts are required to consider the following factors:
- the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
- the nature of the copyrighted work;
- the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole (is it long or short in length, that is, are you copying the entire work, as you might with an image, or just part as you might with a long novel); and
- the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
Keep in mind that even in an educational setting, it is not fair use to copy for a "commercial motive" or to copy "systematically," that is, "where the aim is to substitute for subscription or purchase." No factor by itself will determine whether a particular use is "fair." All four factors must be weighed together in light of the circumstances. See the U.S. Copyright Office's Copyright Information Circulars and Form Letters for "Circular 21-Reproductions of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians."
For classroom use, how does "fair use" apply?
The Internet magnifies the possibility for making an infinite number of perfect copies, which changes what it means to be "fair." Be careful when using material from the Internet; keep in mind the four factors of the fair use test, or get permission from the owner. The National Digital Library Program goes to great effort to identify possible copyright owners for items in American Memory, though we are often unable to ascertain possible rights holders because of the age of the materials. When known to us, we will provide that information in the Restriction Statements accompanying the collections.