Copyright Laws and Fair Use

What's Fair Use and what usage could cause you problems?

Copyright laws are designed to protect intellectual property—like photos, music, and videos—from being used without the express permission of the author or artist. However, there is a very narrow exception to copyright law known as “fair use.” The definition of fair use is limited and subjective, so it’s important to have a good understanding of fair use, always follow copyright laws, and err on the side of caution.

In general, courts have noted that use of copyrighted material is typically permitted when it is used for the purposes of:

  • Scholarship.
  • Commentary.
  • Criticism.
  • Parody.
  • News reporting.
  • Research.

However, even when copyrighted material is used for these purposes, copyright infringement still can occur under certain circumstances.

The Gray Area of Copyright Law

Plenty of gray area exists when it comes to fair use because there are no specific guidelines for how much of a protected work can legally be used without permission. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, courts generally will consider:

  • The reason for the use. Use of a work for nonprofit, rather than commercial, purposes is more likely to be considered fair use.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work. If a work is primarily fact based, such as a map, the use of this work is more likely to be considered fair use. On the other hand, use of creative or artistic works, such as music or works of fiction would be less likely to qualify for fair use.
  • How much of the copyrighted work was used. Many erroneously believe that if they use less than 30 seconds of music or video they have not violated copyright law. While the more limited the use is the more likely it will be considered fair use, there is no specific amount of a work that is always permitted.
  • How the use affects the owner’s ability to earn income from the work. If it appears that your use of the work harms the owner's ability to make money, a court may find that fair use does not apply.

Courts will also typically examine whether the original author was credited for producing the copyrighted material. However, simply crediting the original author alone will not protect against an infringement claim.

The Best Course of Action

Since it is often difficult to determine whether the fair use exception applies, it’s best to take one of the following actions before using copyrighted material:

  • Obtain permission from the copyright owner.
  • Purchase a license to use the work. Blanket licenses allow churches to use thousands of copyrighted songs and motion pictures, but they have limits. Be aware of what a license includes before making a purchase. Here are a few licensing companies that may be helpful to your organization:

In some cases, it is best to simply avoid using the protected material. Consult with a local attorney for more specific guidance on copyright issues.