University Library

Fair Use and Copyright

What Fair Use Is - and Is Not

Copyright questions come up regularly in higher education, and frequently at the library: each of us owns copyrights (ever taken a picture? written an email?), and each of us uses material copyrighted by others. Copyright law is vast and can be complicated, but there are certain questions that we hear again and again on campus. We do not and cannot give legal advice - we're librarians! But just like most other types of questions, librarians are happy to talk to you about your question and point you to resources to help you find an answer.

The questions we hear most often are some form of "can I use this?" and the answer usually boils down to fair use - the ability to legally to use copyrighted materials without payment or permission. It is a legal concept with particular standards and a lot of history - not just what a particular person thinks seems fair. There are other common misunderstandings, many of which stem from the fact that fair use is a flexible standard and not a stiff numerical rule. Fair use has also been criticized as unreliable because of this flexibility, but fair use rights have been exercised legally and regularly in the United States for over a hundred and fifty years, especially in circumstances of "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching . . . scholarship, [and] research." 

Is Your Use Fair?

Fair use is written into United States copyright law, which lists four factors for courts to consider when making fair use decisions: the new user's purpose, the nature of the original work being used, the amount of the original work being used, and the effect of the use on the market for the work being used. One way to synthesize these four factors is to ask two questions:

  • Are you planning on using the work in a different way, or for a different purpose, than the original creator? In copyright terms, is your use transformative?
  • Are you using an amount of that work that is appropriate to your new purpose?

Some common questions implicating fair use that are often asked in the university setting are discussed on the Copyright FAQ tab.

Learn More

If you'd like to learn more, check out some of the many great sites on copyright and fair use. 

Electronic Resources

  • Never share usernames and passwords for UCSC licensed electronic resources with third parties
  • Excessive unauthorized downloading (ex: entire journal issue, hundreds of articles etc.) is NOT allowed and will result in suspension of library electronic access