What is Fair Use?

Fair use gives the owner of a work the right to reproduce or to authorize others to reproduce the work in copies within limits.

This right is subject to certain limitations found in sections 107 through 118 of the Copyright Act (title 17, U. S. Code). One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of “fair use.” Although fair use was not mentioned in the previous copyright law, the doctrine has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years. his doctrine has been codified in Section 107 of the copyright law. Fair use is determined by three tests: brevity, spontaneity, and cumulative effect.


The brevity provision allows multiple copies to be made in the following situations:

Prose: (a) Either a complete article, story, or essay of less than 2,500 words, or (b) an excerpt from any prose work or not more than 2,500 words or 10% of the work, whichever is less, but in any event, a minimum of 500 words.

Poetry: Copying of a complete poem is permitted if (a)  it is less than 250 words and if it is printed on not more than two pages or (b) from a longer poem, an excerpt of not more than 250 words.


“Spontaneity” refers to the copying of material for classroom use where the reproduction was unexpected and at a moment of “inspiration.” An example might be a professor copying an article from the morning’s paper that is directly relevant to a topic to be discussed in class that afternoon.

Cumulative Effect

The “cumulative effect” refers to the limits set on copying material for a single course.

Essentially, no more than one article or two excerpts can be copied from the same author and no more than three articles can be copied from the same collective work or periodical during one class semester or term. Altogether, there should be no more than nine instances of multiple copying in a course during a semester or term.

Checklist for Fair Use

Fair use means the material is used for:

  • Teaching
  • Research
  • Scholarship
  • Nonprofit educational institution
  • Criticism
  • Comment
  • News reporting
  • Transformative or productive use
  • Parody

Fair use also applies when:

  • One or few copies are made
  • A professor restricts access to content to students or other appropriate groups
  • The portion used is not central or significant to the entire work

Fair use is not permitted for:

  • Commercial activity
  • Numerous copies
  • Profiting from the use
  • Entertainment
  • Bad-faith behavior
  • Denying credit to original author
  • Unpublished work
  • Highly creative work
  • Work made accessible on the Web or other public forum
    (Buttler, Ferullo & Hoon, 2007)