Dating back to the 1800’s, the original factors for determining when a person could use another’s work in their own work without permission included: the nature and objects of the copyrighted work used, the quantity and value of the portions of the copyrighted work used, and the degree in which the new work would adversely impact the market for the underlying copyrighted work used (that is, would the new work adversely impact the underlying copyrighted work’s sales, profits, or purpose).
Today, Court’s look to four factors to decide whether Fair Use is applicable. The factors are described in Section 107 of the Copyright Act. However, the Copyright Act allows the Courts to decide the application of Fair Use on a case-by-case basis. This is because Fair Use is based on equity. Fair Use is considered a form of equitable relief and an equitable defense to a claim of infringement. In the United States there are two jurisdictions that the Courts administer – Courts of Law and Courts of Equity. Simply put, equity is based on what is fair and reasonable when there is no legal statutory authority controlling the factual situation. Equitable relief permits the Court to order a party to do or not do something. In this type of factual situation, it is important that the party seeking equity have clean hands and show good faith and fair dealing. Therefore, each case falls on its own facts and there is no bright-line rule.
Again, there is no bright-line rule and each case is determined based on its own facts – a case-by-case basis. There is no exhaustive list of the uses of copyrighted work that are always allowed pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine. Rather, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that all factors must be considered in any given case.
Fair Use does not allow you to steal other people’s creative works. Rather, the purpose and rationale of the Fair Use doctrine is to promote creativity – to allow people to make more original creations. Fair Use is a limit to the exclusivity of the rights belonging to a copyright owner. Material from a copyrighted work can be used without the permission of the copyright owner if that material is simply a component, an ingredient, an element of a new original creative work as a whole. The underlying copyrighted work used cannot be the focus or the purpose of the new work. Instead, the new work must be a new creation. This is in line with the purpose of the Copyright Act, which is to promote creativity.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of the Fair Use doctrine, you can be more aware of when you may be able to use copyrighted material without the copyright owner’s permission. However, it is always better to be safe and attempt to get permission – this shows good faith on your part.