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Understanding fair use under copyright law

To a layperson that owns intellectual property or operates a business in California, copyright law seems extremely complex. These people want to protect their intellectual property, but often have a poor understanding of the ins and outs of copyright law and the fair use doctrine. The laws surrounding intellectual property do help protect ideas, products and processes, but that does not necessarily mean that no one can use your property.

Under the fair use doctrine, people can legally use protected intellectual property in a limited way. Further, they do not have to acquire your permission or seek a license to do so. Because this area of copyright law is flexible and difficult to define, courts typically make decisions about the proper execution of the fair use doctrine on a case-by-case basis. They use four factors to make a determination. These are:

  • The nature of the work: For example, creative works like fiction and images typically receive greater protections than factual works.
  • How the work is used: For example, if the work was changed to form a new expression, its use may be considered fair. In addition, if the work was used to educate, its use may also be fair.
  • Changes in the work's value or marketability: For example, if someone sampled part of your work and the court thinks it will cause you to lose money, it may rule that the use was not fair.
  • The amount and importance of the copied work: To remain within the realm of fair use, a person cannot copy important parts of the work or large segments of the work.

This is just the basics of fair use under U.S. copyright law. Those interested in creating a broad range of intellectual property protection should seek further information from an experienced attorney.

Source: FindLaw, "Fair Use Law," accessed Aug. 24, 2017

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