What is “Fair Use” Under US Copyright Law?

What is the Fair Use exception to United States Copyright laws? Well, this is certainly the most popular exception to copyrights. Unfortunately, it’s also the most confusing. Too many people think that their unauthorized use of the papers or videos or images or other copyrighted material owned by someone else is lawful under the Fair Use exception. And, they’re usually wrong. Being wrong means copyright infringement. Copyright infringement means expensive litigation and potentially expensive adverse damage awards. Simply, when it comes to using copyrighted material owned by others, it’s usually better to err on the side of caution and obtain a copyright license. In many cases, if your intended use of the copyrighted material is benign, the copyright owner might be inclined to let you use it at a very low cost. Sometimes, copyright owners are more interested in proper attribution than money. But, regardless of their desires, as the copyright owner, the decision of whether or not to let you use their copyrighted material is theirs and theirs alone.

The Fair Use exception essentially provides limited copying rights to copyrighted material for things like news reporting, parody, criticism-and-commentary, teaching, and research.  Now, the Fair Use exception typically does not apply if your use is commercial in nature.  Simply, if you stand to profit from your use, your Fair Use defense will be much, much harder to make, and the ultimate determination will likely not be Fair Use but instead, copyright infringement.  In any case, though, there is never an obvious line separating a case of Fair Use from a case of infringement.  Even in cases of non-commercial use, the Fair Use doctrine is complicated.  So, speak to your copyright lawyer before you conclude that your use of copyrighted material is Fair Use.

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