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Frequently Asked Questions

What can I reproduce from a copyrighted work without permission?

(or: What is Fair Use?)

Although you generally cannot put an entire copyrighted work on the Web without permission, you can make limited use of copyrighted material.

In most countries, people are allowed to make limited use of such works in their own writings, or copy the work to a limited extent, for purposes that include commentary, criticism, education, research, and news reporting. This right is known as "fair use" in the United States, and as "fair dealing" in many other countries.

Here's a brief explanation of fair use in the United States, which I've largely lifted from a PDF form letter (FL 102) sent out by the US Copyright Office. (The original form letter, as a government publication, is in the public domain. The Copyright Office is not responsible for the changes I've made here.)

One of the rights accorded to the owner of copyright is the exclusive right to reproduce or to authorize others to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords. This exclusive right is subject to certain limitations found in sections 107 through 118 of the copyright act (title 17, U.S. Code). One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of "fair use". This doctrine has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years, and has been codified in section 107 of the copyright law.

Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered "fair", such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of 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.

The distinction between "fair use" and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission. The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use. (All of the examples below are direct quotes from the report):

Copyright protects the particular way an author has expressed himself; it does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in the work.

The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of "fair use" would clearly apply to the situation. If there is any doubt, it is advisable to consult an attorney.

The US Copyright Office has also issued a circular giving more details about the rights of educators and librarians to reproduce copyrighted materials. See their Circular 21 (in PDF format). At this writing, the online copy dated from 1995, so it might not include the latest developments in copyright law.

As you can see, there are very few hard and fast rules governing fair use. (However, I again note that posting an entire copyrighted book online is almost never fair use. If you want to put a whole book online, see this file for information on when it's okay to do so.)

Countries outside the US may have very different rules regarding what's allowed under fair use or fair dealing. (In some countries, fair dealing only covers private research and study, for instance.) If you're outside the US, see your own country's laws for information on what you're allowed to put online under fair-use or fair-dealing. I've collected some pointers to copyright laws in various countries on this page.

More information on copyright and fair use can be found on the Internet. One excellent starting point is the Copyright and Fair Use site at Stanford.

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