Fair use is a short and sweet portion of copyright law that allows others to reproduce copyrighted works for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research” (17 USC § 107). Fair use is essential for the educational community. The language of fair use is purposefully flexible, which allows the law to be applied in a variety of situations and evolve with changing cultural norms and technologies. However, it also means that for those of us who want to make fair use of materials, we must carefully consider the costs and benefits of each situation.
The four factors that are weighed in fair use are:
The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries puts it this way: “In effect, this amounts to taking all the facts and circumstances into account to decide whether an unlicensed use of copyrighted material generates social or cultural benefits that are greater than the costs its imposes on the copyright owner” (2012, p.6).
Before placing materials on reserves or using material in the classroom, instructors should determine if their intended use of that material falls under fair use. Because fair use analysis depends on the particular contexts of the intended use, there are no hard-and-fast rules for which materials, how many pages, or what situations are or are not fair use. In other words, you need to think carefully about all the materials you plan to use!
There are many tools designed to help you think through fair use when you are planning a curriculum. The University of Minnesota hosts this convenient online checklist to help you weigh the four factors relating to fair use.