The Online Books Page

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 the introductory page to the U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index. (That web page, as a government publication, is in the public domain. The Copyright Office is not responsible for the changes I've made here.)

Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides the statutory framework for determining whether something is a fair use and identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use. Section 107 calls for consideration of the following four factors in evaluating a question of fair use:
  1. Purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes...
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work...
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole...
  4. Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In addition to the above, other factors may also be considered by a court in weighing a fair use question, depending upon the circumstances. Courts evaluate fair use claims on a case-by-case basis, and the outcome of any given case depends on a fact-specific inquiry. This means that there is no formula to ensure that a predetermined percentage or amount of a work—or specific number of words, lines, pages, copies—may be used without permission.

Some additional quotations from a form letter once sent out by the Copyright Office might also be useful. (Some material in the letter has been elided or reformatted in the quotation below):
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:

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 2014, 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 useful starting point is the Copyright and Fair Use site at Stanford.

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