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Understand That Fair Use Is Not All That Permissive

One of the most misunderstood elements of copyright law, especially among students, is the doctrine of fair use. The popular perception is that fair use permits any kind of noncommercial use. In reality, fair use is a lot more nuanced, requiring care in interpreting and applying it.

A determination of fair use relies on four factors:

  • The intended use of the work being made
  • The nature of the work being used
  • The portion of the original work being used
  • The market impact of such use

For instance, using a short excerpt from a book in a class paper, which has negligible impact on the market and is intended for an educational purpose, will probably fly. Including an entire episode of a TV series in a published work probably won't, even if it's intended to be illustrative.

Misunderstandings about copyright rules are often the result of not understanding the extent of copyright ownership. For instance, many people believe that anything published on the Internet is in the public domain; in fact, material on the Internet is subject to the same copyright protections—and rules of fair use—as any other published material. Before using any material you believe is in the public domain, you should investigate the copyright status of the work, at least to establish whom to credit even if formal permission is not required. In fact, including any material in a paper or a presentation without proper credit, even work that is in the public domain, is considered plagiarism and can result in severe consequences. To avoid either plagiarism or a copyright violation, document and cite all of your sources in detail and avoid copying text directly as much as possible. Remember, copyright violations are easy to identify and only get easier as technology marches on and services like Copyscape become more available.

It is important to remember that copyright applies to every tangible work of original thought. Distributing copyrighted material over file-sharing networks is an obvious violation of intellectual property laws (and of the terms of use for most school networks), but it's not the only way you can run afoul of copyright. For instance, repackaging and selling your lecture notes can be considered an infringement on the copyright of the person who created the lecture. The best approach is to act with caution, asking for permission when you're not sure and always citing your sources.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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