10 Fair Use Misconceptions

This is Fair Use Week 2015 in the U.S. which takes place from February 23-27. The event is held to raise public awareness of the importance the rights of individuals, nonprofits like schools and libraries, and even corporations like Google and The New York Times have when it comes to copyright. Today we’re following up on yesterday’s post which explained how Fair Use works in the U.S. – and we’re looking at some misconceptions about Fair Use.

Fair Use is a kind of infringement, right?

Nope! Fair Use is a lawful use of copyright. That’s what the law says, and it’s also what the Northern District of California said in the case of Lenz v. Universal Music back in 2008. If your new work is a Fair Use of someone’s copyrighted work, you’re not infringing on that work. Also, fair use isn’t a license; the whole point is that you don’t need the copyright owner’s permission. (Just imagine if a copyright owner had to grant permission every time someone created a parody that was critical of the original – they probably wouldn’t!)

If a site has ads, nothing I put on there can be Fair Use, right?

Nope! For two reasons. First, while many hosting sites are moneymaking ventures, that doesn’t mean that the people posting their works there are engaged in commercial use. People who post their fanworks on YouTube aren’t making money from those works – if anyone is, it’s YouTube or their advertisers. (But as a reminder, the AO3 is entirely nonprofit and noncommercial, and is dedicated to providing a platform for fanworks with no ads.)

Second, even if someone is engaged in a moneymaking venture, they still might be engaged in Fair Use. While the commercial aspects of a project are one of the factors a court looks at when determining if a use is Fair Use, it’s not the only factor. So while the Organization for Transformative Works is a nonprofit, and our legal advocacy team focuses on noncommercial works, we do want to note that commercial works can also be noninfringing because of Fair Use.

As noted copyright expert Judge Pierre Leval of the Second Circuit stated last year in arguments regarding whether Google Books’ scans of entire books was a Fair Use, “The classic fair use cases are commercial. I would be surprised if [one is] going to win by pleading that Google, like the New York Times, is a profit-making enterprise.” In fact, US courts have found many commercial uses to be fair. One example of a commercial work found to be fair use is the (commercially published) book The Wind Done Gone, which retold the story of Gone with the Wind from the perspective of the slave characters. A more recent example was addressed in 2013 in the case of Cariou v. Prince; in that case, artist Richard Prince purchased a book of photos by Patrick Cariou, and painted over the photographs, selling his “appropriative” art at prices in the many thousands of dollars. (In fact, some sold for two million dollars or more.) The court found that most of Prince’s works were Fair Use.

Fair Use only covers uses that criticize or comment on the original copyrighted work, right?

Nope! Although criticism and commentary are among the types of fair use described by the statute, U.S. courts have held that a work need not comment on the original in order to be transformative. In Cariou v. Prince, the court said that “a secondary work may constitute a fair use even if it serves some purpose other than … criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.” In other words, Prince’s art was so transformative of Cariou’s photographs that Prince’s follow-on works were noninfringing because of the Fair Use doctrine. Cases about mass digitization projects like Google Book Search have found transformativeness even when copyrighted works are copied into a database without any commentary or criticism. In the case of Author’s Guild v. Google, for example, the court explained that Google Book Search was transformative because it transformed the purpose of the digitized books–for example, by allowing large-scale data searching, preserving out-of-print books, and making books available for print-disabled users–even without transforming their meaning.

So Fair Use only applies to transformative works, right?

Nope! Fair Use allows newspapers to quote books, films, and yes, fanworks, for purposes of news reporting, commentary and criticism. Fair Use also covers certain uses for educational purposes, like when teachers assign little kids to write their own ending to a tv show or film, or show clips from a film in a media analysis class, or make copies of a page or two of a book for classroom use. Fair Use is one reason why the backgrounds of films and tv shows can include book covers, and why songs on the radio can mention copyrighted comic book characters. It doesn’t cover a university tv station showing films over its network during finals, though.

My use will be Fair Use if I use a disclaimer identifying the original creator and saying I don’t own it, right?

Not necessarily! In fact, attribution isn’t part of the Fair Use analysis. So something that’s Fair Use will be Fair Use regardless of whether it has a disclaimer – and a disclaimer won’t help a copy that isn’t Fair Use (like uploading an entire copyrighted movie for others to share and watch, see below). That doesn’t mean that fans should stop putting disclaimers on their fanworks – it’s a good ethical practice, and it honors those who created the original works that fans love so much – but it isn’t something courts are likely to consider in determining whether something is Fair Use. Also, though you definitely don’t need to add a note to your work about it being Fair Use (remember, it’s not a license!), it never hurts to explain ahead of time why you think it might be.

If a site that’s not as enlightened as AO3 takes my fanworks down, there’s nothing I can do, right?

Nope! Most sites that operate in the US have what’s called a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) policy – the AO3 has one, too. Generally, they require a copyright claimant who wants someone else’s work to be taken down to submit a pledge that they own the copyright in a specific work, and their copyright in that work has been infringed. Some courts have held that copyright owners are supposed to conduct a Fair Use analysis before issuing a takedown notice, but oftentimes, they don’t bother, or they use a rigid matrix. And sometimes sites don’t conduct that Fair Use analysis either–they just take the content down. So the Copyright Act also provides for a counter-notice process (17 U.S.C. § 512(g)) where the person whose work was taken down has a chance to demonstrate to the site that the work is noninfringing – usually because it’s Fair Use. At that point, the claimant can argue to the site that Fair Use doesn’t apply, or realize that huh, it does! In reality, the final decision usually rests with the site or server company hosting the content, but the counternotice process at least provides for an opportunity to respond to someone else’s copyright claim. And if you get a takedown notice for a noncommercial transformative work and want help understanding the counter-notice process, you can get in touch with OTW’s legal team.

Fair Use means I can upload films and tv shows and songs and entire books for others to download in their entirety, right?

Nope! Or, at least, most of the time, nope. There are some exceptions, such as where the content is in the public domain (see below), or is the subject of a Creative Commons license or another license for a specific use like the kind we have here on AO3 that allows readers to download stories onto their e-readers, accessible via a password-and-license process for educational or other specific purposes. (Or if you’re Google, creating Google Book Search, as we’ve described above–but you’re probably not!) If you’ve done something transformative with it before you share your follow-on work, it may be Fair Use, but putting someone else’s film or album or novel or webisode onto a torrent or server usually doesn’t qualify. (But you’re not the only one with this question; Mark Ruffalo wondered about it last year, too.)

Fair Use is some newfangled thing made up by fandom lawyers and fanfic writers who want to play with someone else’s characters and stories, right?

Nope! Fair use has been part of the U.S. Copyright statute for many decades, and existed in the common law long before that. In a case called Folsom v. Marsh in 1841, Justice Story set out a summary that’s been quoted, cited, paraphrased and made the subject of follow-on works for over 170 years: “We must often . . . look to the nature and objects of the selections made, the quantity and value of the materials used, and the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale, or diminish the profits, or supersede the objects, of the original work.”

Fair Use is why I can use things in the public domain, right?

Nope. Works that were originally published in the U.S. before 1923 and works created by the U.S. Government (and a few more categories, but those two are the most common) are in what’s known as the “public domain,” which means that they aren’t protected by copyright law at all. Films, songs, stories, plays, poems, essays, art, books and other works in the public domain can be used by anyone for any purpose because they’re not protected by copyright. It’s fair to use them, but follow-on works inspired by things in the public domain aren’t literally Fair Use situations. As the Seventh Circuit said last summer in Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, “When a story falls into the public domain, story elements—including characters covered by the expired copyright—become fair game for follow-on authors.”

Fair Use is a worldwide concept, right?

Alas, nope. Fair Use is a U.S. doctrine, although a number of other countries have similar laws. If you’re outside the U.S., the law that applies to you may be significantly different than what we’ve described here. Regardless, no matter where you are, Fair Use law matters to you if you’re posting your works on U.S. sites or if you’re using source material owned by U.S. copyright holders.

We’re here to help! If you have questions about fair use and fanworks, feel free to contact our legal team.