Definition of Fair Use

What Is Fair Use?

Fair use may not be what you expect. Whether or not you are within the boundaries of fair use depends on the facts of your particular situation. What exactly are you using? How widely are you sharing the materials? Are you confining your work to the nonprofit environment of the university?

To determine whether you are within fair use, the law calls for a balanced application of these four factors:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

These four factors come directly from the fair use provision, Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act, and they have been examined and developed in court rulings. The following summaries explain the significance of the factors as they relate to many university needs. 

Remember: Fair Use is a Balancing Test

To determine whether a use is or is not a fair use, always keep in mind that you need to apply all four factors. For example, do not jump to a conclusion based simply on whether your use is educational or commercial. You still need to evaluate, apply, and weigh in the balance the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount or substantiality of the portion used, and the potential impact of the use on the market or value of the work. This flexible approach to fair use is critical in order for the law to adapt to changing technologies and to meet innovative needs of higher education. Not all factors need to weigh either for or against fair use, but overall the factors will usually lean one direction or the other. Also, the relative importance of the factors is not always the same. Your analysis should guide you to a conclusion.

The Fair Use Checklist may be helpful in weighing the four factors, while the Scenarios page can provide a useful reference for common situations at the university. If you are unsure or unsettled about your application of fair use, please consult the university’s Copyright Advisory Office or Columbia’s Office of General Counsel for assistance. Finally, keep in mind that even if your use is unlikely to be within fair use, it might fall under other statutory rights of use, or you may seek permission from the copyright owner.

cc license

When making use of this page under the terms of the CC license, please include this form of attribution: "Used under a Creative Commons BY license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director."  If your needs for the material are outside the scope of the license, please consider fair use or simply asking us for permission.

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