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