Home Digital Literacy What Does ‘Fair Use’ Mean When Talking About Copyrighted Material?

What Does ‘Fair Use’ Mean When Talking About Copyrighted Material?


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Working with fellow educators regularly, I know that we can all use an occasional refresher on Fair Use! – KW

Copyright law bestows exclusive rights on content creators. The fair use privilege is the most significant limitation on a copyright owner’s exclusive rights. This legal provision proves quite confusing to most people. Not to worry! Below we have carefully explained the concepts of fair use and where to draw the line between acceptable and illegal.

What is Fair Use?

Fair use is a legal grey area designed to permit limited reproduction of copyrighted material for transformative purposes without necessarily obtaining permission or paying a royalty to the copyright holder. Some countries like the US and UK have listed some of the uses that permit the application of fair use. They include news reporting, parody or criticism and commentary.

1. News Reporting

Fair use gives power to media houses to briefly quote an address or article without necessarily asking for the owner’s consent. For example, if the president makes a speech, a journalist has the legal go-ahead to quote the president without any repercussions.

2. Criticism and Commentary

Fair use principles allow you to make a comment or critique a copyrighted work like a book review. Public benefit is the rationale that governs this rule and is enhanced by including a portion of the copyrighted material. After all, your audience should be able to catch a glimpse of what you are reviewing. Some examples of criticism and commentary include:

  • Copying a few lines from a news article to be used in teaching.
  • Showing a short preview of a movie for the purpose of reviewing and rating.
  • Quoting the findings from a medical report by a student in a thesis.

The freedom of citation, however, has to meet some conditions. In most of the EU countries for example, for a work citation to be allowed for the purpose of review, the following conditions have to be met:

  • The work to be cited is readily available.
  • The cited material is accompanied by a topical discussion
  • The extent of citation is considered acceptable for the purpose of criticism or commentary.

3. Parody

In simple terms, a parody is a work that makes fun of another well-known work in a comic way. Take the case of some of the best sites for torrenting for example. They have many parody music videos that ridicule songs from the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, pretty much any famous musician for the purpose of humour. Unlike the other forms of fair use, parodies are permitted to make extensive use of the original work without infringing on any copyright law. Besides, it is easy for judges to understand that parodies are just meant to “conjure up” the original.

Some of the Most Common Ways People Share Copyrighted Material Illegally

Copyright infringement is the use of copyrighted works with permissions, therefore, violating exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner.

1. Freebooting

Freebooting is the illegal copying of online media, especially videos, onto sites like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. This term, a combination of freeloading and bootlegging, was suggested by a YouTube blogger in the attempt to define the middle ground between theft and piracy.

2. P2P File Sharing

This is most probably the most talked about development in copyright infringement. In majority of the countries, it is not against the law to use a P2P file-sharing program. However, this program is the most cited illegal distribution method in the DMCA notices in US. This is because the data being shared through this platform is mostly illegal. For example, if you have purchased a movie, you have the right to have a copy in your PC. The infringement comes in if you use P2P software to share the movie with people who have not paid for it.

3. Plagiarism

This is the use of another person’s work without proper acknowledgment of the source. Plagiarism goes beyond merely duplicating work. It also involves not crediting the source making it look like your original work. Plagiarism is considered as one of the most serious copyright infringement cases as it involves deception.

Illegal Sharing and Law Enforcement

In most nations, copyright infringement cases are enforced through civil lawsuits. The type of punishment varies case-by-case across countries. Convictions include severe fines, jail time or a combination of the two. An example is the Minnesota woman who was ordered by the court to pay a fine of $220,000 for illegally downloading 24 songs. In addition to setting harsh punishments, countries have also set aside groups to police the sharing of files physically or through the web. An example of such a group is the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the US.


The concept of fair use originally applied largely to written material. But with the advent of digital technology, it now covers the redistribution of musical works, photographs, and computer programs just to name a few. This has forced countries to change their laws on fair use to accommodate new entities. Take some time to learn what qualifies as fair use in your country.




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