Copyright Law and the Fair Use Exception

Since legislators drafted the United States Constitution, America’s government has supported copyright laws in an effort to spur artistic creativity. The Founding Fathers put this protection in place anticipating that society will benefit from creative growth. Copyright laws give intellectual property creators exclusive rights to their crafted works, which may include music, literature, movies and other works. These rights protect the creator’s work for a predetermined time frame, which typically lasts 20 years. After that time passes, the works fall under public domain, meaning that publishers who wish to distribute the content are now free to do so and do not require the copyright holder’s permission.

This brings us to the Fair Use Exception. A content creator can register his or her work with the United States Copyright Office and no one else can duplicate it – right? Not always; there are some exceptions to this rule. Fair Use is one exception among a few others. Copyright laws give special ownership rights to original content creators. The Fair Use exception permits others to use copyrighted materials in certain instances. Judges use predefined criteria to decide what materials fall under fair use law; however, they review each case individually, because all fair use cases have unique circumstances. Historically, the Fair Use issue is commonplace. Today, the United States Copyright Office maintains some Fair Use case outcomes in a database to assist legal professionals and other individuals in researching this matter.

fair use

What Is The Fair Use Exception?

The courts can grant a new publisher the right to reproduce an original work in part or whole. Sometimes, the courts may grant this right although the original creator argues against this action. The Fair Use exception results from judicial interpretations concerning free speech and copyright law. The United States judicial system recognizes that there are certain situations where creative professionals must allow others limited rights in regard to their works such as critiques, news narratives, academic instruction and scientific studies. The Fair Use exception law originated in the judicial system; the Copyright Office has since incorporated the ruling into their laws using four benchmarks to determine if a publisher qualifies for the Fair Use exception.

How the Court Decides Fair Use

Judges decide whether a petitioner qualifies for the Fair Use exception by weighing each case’s merit individually. The justices use four determiners to decide whether an unlicensed user can exercise Fair Use privileges:

  • How the new publisher will use the work
  • The original piece’s characteristics
  • What portion of the original work the unlicensed user publishes
  • How the new content will affect the original creator

When the magistrates consider how a new publisher will use the work, they measure how much the petitioner changes their work compared to the original piece. As for the original work’s characteristics, the judges consider whether the piece is fiction or nonfiction. If the new publisher adds minor changes to an original piece, it is unlikely that the judges will award a fair use exception; however, this is not always the case with parodies, which may use a complete, but modified, work to express a comedic idea. In these instances, magistrates use their discretion to decide whether to permit a parody publication under fair use law.

Fair Use related articles frequently cite the case Campbell versus Acuff-Rose Music, Incorporated for the court’s determination that “transformative works lie at the heart of the fair use doctrine’s guarantee of breathing space within the confines of copyright.” Additionally, what is acceptable under fair use is not always clear when a petitioner wishes to use less than the whole work. Finally, the judges must decide whether the new work will cause the original composer to lose future potential profits, an outcome that copyright law specifically aims to prevent.

The United States Copyright Office Fair Use Index

The Fair Use exception issue has existed for some time. To help clarify what constitutes Fair Use, the Copyright Office has created the Fair Use Index. The Index is a tool that individuals can use to research past case histories and gauge what is acceptable under the Fair Use rule. The Index is not all-inclusive, but the Copyright Office does update the database occasionally. On their website, the Copyright Office directs its database users to seek professional counsel and not to rely solely on the information provided in the case histories.

Content creators protect their works with the rights set forth by copyright law. The fair use exception allows some individuals to circumvent this law when the outcome will somehow enrich the public. Ultimately, judges balance what the public may gain against what the original author may lose. Fair Use exception issues have arisen regularly for some time. Therefore, to assist the public in researching this issue, the Copyright Office maintains a partial database containing Fair Use case history.

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