Thankful for Fair Use
by Krista Cox
Fair use is a critical right in U.S. copyright law, permitting the use of copyrighted material without permission from the rightholder under certain circumstances. It has been called the “safety valve” of U.S. copyright law, responsive to change and able to accommodate new technologies and developments. Amending copyright law is not an easy task; the 1976 Copyright Act took twenty years to enact (and was where the fair use doctrine was officially codified, though it was certainly not a new doctrine). Fair use, as a broad and flexible doctrine, therefore allows copyright law to adapt to the changing environment and technologies and preserve the important balance in the law without requiring constant legislative attention.
Here are just some of the ways we rely on fair use each day in ways that were inconceivable when the doctrine was codified by the 1976 act, much less in 1841 when Folsom v. March (which forms the basis of the fair use doctrine) was decided:
- Checking e-mails.
- Forwarding e-mails and attachments.
- Watching and sharing news clips online
- Using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
- Recording shows with a DVR to watch later.
- Sending a show from a DVR to a mobile device to watch.
- Using a web search engine like Google or Bing.
- Using Shazam or other sound search.
- Reading a book on an iPhone.
We rely on fair use each day because of the prevalence of technology. For example, temporary copies are constantly being made when we access webpages or open e-mails and attachments. These copies could be unauthorized reproductions, but thanks to fair use, copyright law accommodates these advances in technology without requiring legislative changes. Without fair use, the growth of the Internet and technology as we know it today would not be possible. Flexibility in the fair use doctrine has already led to these new innovations and can continue to promote the progress of science and the useful arts for technology that we may are not even able to conceive of today.
Of course, fair use is not limited to new technologies or to those listed above. ARL’s “Fair Use in a Day in the Life of a College Student” infographic, released as part of the Fair Use Week 2016 celebration, for example, demonstrates how often a college student encounters fair use on a daily basis, often without even realizing that she is relying on this critical doctrine.
From checking her e-mail, forwarding messages, doing research, writing papers, sharing information over social media, watching recordings of popular shows, taking selfies and more, the average student relies on fair use constantly. Fair uses are all around and we should be thankful that the broad, flexible fair use doctrine accommodates new ways of communicating, sharing, learning, researching, enjoying entertainment and more.
Krista L. Cox is the Director of Public Policy Initiatives for the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), in Washington D.C. Prior to joining ARL, Cox was the staff attorney/legal counsel at Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit organization that searches for better outcomes, including new solutions, to the management of knowledge resources. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @ARLpolicy