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What is 'fair use' of copyrighted material?

Sometimes it's okay to use someone else's copyrighted material for your own purposes. "Fair use" is the unlicensed use or copying of someone else's original work without their permission. As long as your use of the material can be considered fair use, it isn't a violation of copyright law -- nor subject to penalties for infringement.

What does that mean, exactly?

Generally speaking, small snippets of someone else's material can be used for commentary, parodies, criticisms and in transformative works. For example, if you are reviewing a movie or a book, you may quote some of the original material in your review to illustrate your point. Similarly, a teacher could copy a paragraph from a book as part of a lesson plan to critique it with a classroom of students.

Parodies make use of original material in a transformative way, which fits the criteria for fair use. For example, those who remember Weird Al Yankovic's parodies of popular songs by Michael Jackson have seen how original work can be transformed through fair use.

However, there are limits. For your use of another person's original material to qualify as fair use, four things have to be considered:

  • The purpose for which the copyrighted material is being used
  • The nature of the material
  • The amount of the material being used compared to the whole of work
  • What kind of effect the unauthorized use of the material could have on the marketability of the original piece

A great deal of legal wrangling is sometimes done over what does and does not constitute fair use. For example, rap artists sometimes mix "samples" of other artists' work in a unique way. That practice has sometimes come under fire for alleged infringement.

If you have a copyright infringement concern that needs to be addressed, an attorney can advise you of your rights and help you understand your legal options.

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