What Every Writer Ought to Know about Fair Use and Copyright

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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.”

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