What Every Writer Ought to Know about Fair Use and Copyright

by Joel Friedlander on February 8, 2010 · 361 comments

I’ve been researching what the best practices are these days for copyright, and I’ll be writing about them in articles soon. But one area of copyright is really difficult to understand for most publishers, and for bloggers too for that matter. And that is: What constitutes “fair use”?

To answer this question I’m very fortunate to have an expert to guide us. Today’s guest post is by Attorney David L. Amkraut, and you can find out more about David at the end of the article. Enjoy!

Fair Use and Copyright

“Fair use” is a legal doctrine which excuses acts that would otherwise be copyright infringement. Infringers who are caught invariably yell, “Fair Use.” But fair use is misunderstood by many infringers. And authors. And photographers and illustrators, too. Let’s try to explain it in plain terms.

Fair Use is an “affirmative defense”—the defendant copier has the burden of proof to show that Fair Use applies. Essentially he says, “Yes, I copied the work—but I am allowed to because my copying is “Fair Use.”

The doctrine developed to allow limited and reasonable uses of copyright–protected work. Examples include a reviewer quoting briefly from a book, or a teacher using brief passages from a book to teach English usage or writing. Copying allowed by Fair Use is usually, though not always, a small part of a work and typically includes an author credit and attribution.

In fancy words, “It [fair use] was created to allow use of copyright (sic) material for socially valuable purposes such as commentary, parody, news reporting, education and the like, without permission of the copyright holder.”

Fair uses are generally, though not always, for non–profit purposes. Fair use is seldom allowed where the copier’s use competes directly with the work or harms its commercial value. Such as lifting entire chapters from a book, to sell online. Or copying piles of text and entire groups of photos from a website, to stock a competing website.

The Four Factor Test

Fair Use is not a rigid “bright line” legal rule. Rather, courts do a case–by–case analysis of the facts, using a “Four Factor test” to analyze whether Fair Use applies in a given situation. The four factors are stated in the opinion of the famous Joseph Story in Folsom v. Marsh, 9 F.Cas. 342 (1841). There the defendant had copied 353 pages from the plaintiff’s 12-volume biography of George Washington, in order to produce a separate two-volume work of his own.

Here’s a good explanation of how you apply the Four Factor test:

“Notwithstanding the provisions of … [copyright] … the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction … for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

Scenarios: Is it “Fair Use” or is it Infringement?

Let’s play judge. It’ll be fun. The first two are easy ones. The other examples are not as simple.

Scenario 1: An English teacher prints a classroom handout, and includes a quotation from a book on the Grand Canyon, to show pithy writing: “…the awful heat sucked out his thinking ability like a brain vampire…”

Analysis: Teacher prevails on all four factors. This is exactly the type of usage that falls squarely under Fair Use.

Scenario 2: A gigantic online operator—let’s call it Giggle.com—scans and stores 11+ Million books (including yours), without any permission from the copyright holder. Then it uses the unauthorized scans to reproduce and sell the books in both printed (“P-book”) and electronic (“E-book”) form. Giggle gets sued, and claims Fair Use as a defense.

Analysis: Defendant fails on Factor 1, because the use is for money. Factor 2 is unfavorable to defendant. Defendant fails on Factor 3 because Giggle is copying the entire book, not just portions. Defendant fails strongly on Factor 4 because defendant is unfairly and directly competing with the rightful owner and hurting his market for the book. Thus, defendant Giggle should be judged to be committing copyright infringement.

Scenario 3: You’re a college professor as well as a writer or self–publisher. You gather full chapters from several books, and have them copied, printed, and bound to create your course’s required readings. The students buy the compilation at a copying service company. You, the professor, get a lucrative kickback. The owners of copyright in the works you copied get nothing. You and the copying service get sued. You claim Fair Use.

Analysis: You fail on Factor 1, because you are making money, not just using the copied work for education. Factor 2 is unfavorable to you. You argue like crazy but are wrong on Factors 3 and 4. By the way, this scenario is based on an actual case, and defendants lost. The Court may have also been disgusted with defendants’ “dirty hands,” involving the copying services and bookstores paying kickbacks or commissions to the professors. You lose. Not Fair Use.

Here are a few more interesting scenarios. We don’t need to analyze them in detail, now that you’re getting so sophisticated and already starting to think like a judge or lawyer.

Scenario 4: The magazine The Nation printed an excerpt from President Ford’s book on President Nixon. Although the excerpt was only a tiny part of the work, it was almost the only part anyone cared about. (Nixon’s comments when abdicating) Publisher sued.

Result: Court ruled it was not Fair Use. Most interesting was the Court’s analysis of Factor 3: although the amount copied was small, its substantiality was large. The Court was also influenced by the fact that The Nation obtained the manuscript surreptitiously and “scooped” the copyright owner’s intended serialization by several weeks.

Scenario 5: You are a self–publisher or author or micro-publisher finishing a book on keeping kids healthy. You realize you need a cute headshot of a happy smiling teenager. You want to save a few dollars, so you find a nice photo in a women’s magazine, scan it, and use on your book cover. Copyright holder sues you. You claim Fair Use.

Result: You lose.

Advice: Don’t steal photos. Buy a license.

Scenario 6: You are a self–publisher or author or micro-publisher preparing a book on the evolution of lighting styles in fashion photography. You scan some photos from a fashion magazine and use them to comment and explain concepts like “soft lighting,” “hard lighting, ” and “catalog lighting.” Copyright holder sues you. You claim Fair Use.

Result: You should win. The use is incidental to the book, doesn’t harm the rights–holder, and is for the purpose of education and commentary.

Scenario 7: Several years ago the Danish publication Jyllens–Posten published cartoons of Muhammed, the founder of Islam. You’re a self–publisher or author or micro–publisher preparing a serious book on the cartoons, to discuss the cartoons, the Muslim uproar, attacks on Danes, burning of Danish property, Muslim cartoons in their own media inciting violence, etc. You reproduce the cartoons in your book. Copyright–holder Jyllens–Posten sues you. What result?

Result: You’ll probably win on Fair Use. The topic is of tremendous public importance. The cartoons are shown in the context of that topic and in a book with serious commentary. And it is impossible to meaningfully discuss the cartoons without actually showing the cartoons in their entirety.

Really, when you strip away the fancy language, Fair Use is a pretty sensible concept. It gives “breathing room” to the First Amendment and tries to strike a balance between protecting the copyright owner’s property rights, and encouraging valuable activities such as scholarship and public discussion. Fair Use comes down to whether the use is “fair” and should be allowed.

About the Author

David L. Amkraut is a Los Angeles-based Attorney at law. His practice emphasizes cutting-edge Internet-related copyright matters. Among other cases, he was attorney for the plaintiffs in Louder v. CompuServe, a class-action case involving unauthorized publication of 930 photographs of models by the 2nd-largest Internet Service Provider in the world. He also served as counsel in KNB v. Matthews, an important case defining the relationship between copyright and the “Right of Publicity” in still photographs. Law Offices of David L. Amkraut, 2272 Colorado Blvd., #1228, Los Angeles, CA 90041


p class=”note”>Thanks to David for this very informative article. Check the “Related Posts” links below for more articles about copyright.

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    { 344 comments… read them below or add one }

    Mary Stevenson December 29, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks, everyone; thanks, Joel. Just wanted you to know that I DID find the right place to ask about using those song lyrics in my book, which is Alfred Music. They had to contact the Eagles for me before issuing any “license” and the answer was a big fat NO! I’ve heard that the Eagles are one of the most territorial bands as to keeping their music from public use. Oh well, that’s too bad, but I’m glad to be spared any legal hassles by knowing this ahead of time.


    Raymond December 29, 2014 at 1:45 pm


    Try going through their booking agency to ask for the right person:


    Also, if you know someone who belongs to the Music Union, you might be able to go through a directory and contact a band member yourself to find out how to get permission.



    Danielle December 26, 2014 at 5:00 am

    I am hoping you can help me worth my question. I would like to print 365 day desk calendars to sell containing a different quote on each day from various sources. Would I need to obtain pemission for this application? Thank you.


    Sheogorath January 23, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    Since there are a crap ton of quotes out there by authors long dead, why not just use that Public Domain material and avoid the question entirely? Just make sure to use correct attribution so as not to get accused of plagiarism.


    Sam Shantz December 19, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Sorry, but I am really impatient. And I understand why you aren’t constantly checking your article, if I wrote one I wouldn’t. But please respond.


    Joel Friedlander December 19, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Sam, I think you’ve misunderstood the nature of this blog. The original author of this post has answered numerous questions over the years since it was written, solely out of generosity, but he is a busy attorney and can’t be expected to answer every one, or even any of them at this point nearly 5 years later. If this is so urgent and important for you, I suggest you hire an intellectual property attorney to get a definitive answer. And good luck with your book!


    Sam Shantz January 6, 2015 at 11:31 am

    Oh, sorry! Thank you…


    Sam Shantz January 6, 2015 at 11:35 am

    I apologize for my nature. I was thinking all about me and the joy of writing a book without going to prison or sued. I really think that writing is my future, but I want it to be good. I realize the immaturity of my behavior and shan’t send repeated angry comments. Thank you for your advice and I thank you for this article which has given me a good idea for my books. You see to know a lot, do you write them too? If you have any advice, please let me know! I apologize again for my immaturity and thank you


    Sam Shantz January 6, 2015 at 11:37 am

    I don’t only apologize to you Joel, but all of the other people who had to deal with me feeling like my books are more important than theirs. I hope you accept my apology and my thank-you.

    BLISS INFNITE TEAM December 18, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    Hello Joel,
    A really nice article. Thanks a lot for this. We at Bliss infinite are planning to launch a Magazine for students and hope to use some inspirational excerpts from various books. Would that be a fair thing to do?


    Mary Stevenson December 15, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Hi Joel, thanks for your helpful article here. I have an important question and hope you can help me. I am about to publish my first book and have included the lyrics to an Eagle’s song, giving them full credit, of course. I cannot seem to even find HOW/where to contact them to ask permission to use these lyrics, which make such a good point in my story. Do I risk being on the wrong side of this “fair use” situation, based on your experience? I’d appreciate anyone else’s answers, too, especially if anyone knows who/how to contact whoever I need to, in order to ask their permission. Many thanks! Mary


    Joel Friedlander December 19, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    Yes, in my experience you would be at risk publishing any copyrighted lyrics without permission. I suggest you consult with an intellectual property attorney to get a professional answer before you proceed.


    Diana December 14, 2014 at 11:10 am


    Thanks for the information in your blogs I have all of them very helpful. I have just completed my memoir and hired a professional editor, I want to make sure it reads well, after she is completed I would like to hire a second person to read through as a backup to ensure it is published with the utmost professionalism. In my book I listed a band name and title of a song and first few words that I gravitated towards while I was confined to a bed for six months paralyzed. It helped me find internal strength to keep fighting to survive. Do I have to get permission from the band before publishing my book.


    Sheogorath January 23, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    IMHO, that’s classic fair use with transformative use on top. IANAL, however.


    Sam Shantz December 11, 2014 at 7:48 am

    So, does that mean my book is good


    Sam Shantz December 15, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Can you help me?


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