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Fair use or copyright infringement?

You quote a few lines from a Prince song in a newsletter you’re preparing for work. Your daughter copies a few sentences from a magazine article into her social studies homework assignment. Your wife records her favorite television show to watch later in the week with a group of her girlfriends.

Are you and your family committing copyright infringement? Or are these acts considered “fair use” of copyrighted works, and therefore non-infringing? The answer is not as straight forward as you might think.

Fair use is a legal doctrine that permits the unlicensed use of copyrighted works under certain circumstances. In its most general sense, fair use allows an individual to use another author’s copyright-protected work, without that author’s permission, for a limited and “transformative” purpose.

Although what exactly constitutes fair use is ambiguous (indeed, the subject of fair use has been litigated extensively over the years), the Copyright Act does provide examples of certain types of uses that may qualify as fair use:

  • Commentary and criticism -- quoting or excerpting a work in a review for purposes of illustration or comment.
  • News reporting -- summarizing an article or story in a news report.
  • Nonprofit educational uses -- photocopying limited portions of written works by teachers for use in classrooms.
  • Parody -- a work that ridicules a preexisting work by imitating or mocking it in a comedic manner.
  • Research and scholarship -- quoting a written work in a scholarly, scientific or technical article for illustrative purposes.

Do our above-mentioned examples qualify as fair uses? There is no easy “yes” or “no” answer. And the answer to each may depend on the exact circumstances surrounding each incident. If you have questions concerning fair use of copyrighted materials, or if you have been accused of copyright infringement or believe someone else is infringing your copyright, your best bet is to contact an experienced copyright attorney for detailed advice.

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