Fair use

Do you want to use a copyrighted work for a paper, lecture, presentation, or project? The fair use provision of U.S. copyright law allows for some uses of copyrighted works in research, teaching, news reporting, and criticism without the need of permission from the copyright owner. Unlike specific exceptions to the rights of copyright owners, fair use is a flexible standard.

Determining fair use

Whether an intended use is covered by the fair use provision is determined by four factors:

  • Purpose or character of use
  • Nature of the work being used
  • Amount and substantiality of the use
  • Effect on the market for the work being used

Another factor that courts have considered in determining if a use is fair is whether or not your use is "transformative." A work is transformative if it uses the source work in an unexpected or unusual way not anticipated for the source work's copyright owner. Parody is one example of a use found to be transformative, as is copying entire texts to create an online index of the text.

Use our fair use checklist to help determine if your specific use is covered. If your use isn't favored under fair use, be sure to get permission from the copyright owner.

Learn more in our fair use and copyright in instruction and in our guidelines for instructors.

Best practices

The Center for Media & Social Impact at American University has worked with a number of communities and attorneys to develop best practices in fair use for a number of specific areas such as documentary film makers, journalism, and the visual arts.

Contact us

If you need help, contact our copyright librarian Ellen Dubinsky.